Walking In Silence
An Introduction by the Author.
Some months ago, I came across a story by an author who called himself ‘Leviticus’. I was immediately taken by the sheer quality of his writing, and I lapped up his ‘Valley’ stories, persuading my Master to read them – which he did with great relish.
As I had some time on my hands, My Master suggested that I should try my hand at writing. The result of this was a story (still uncompleted) called ‘Claire’s Tale‘. The early parts of the story were published through an E-group, but then work over-took me, and I had to stop writing. Six months later, a friend asked me if she could publish Claire’s Tale in a new site she was opening. I agreed and then, shortly afterwards, she told me that Leviticus had been asking her about me – it seems that they were old acquaintances.
So I contacted Leviticus and, to my considerable surprise, he asked me if I would write something for HIS site. The result of that request is ‘Walking In Silence’, a story that requires some explanation.
It might help to know that I am in a long term D/s relationship with my Master, The Bear; we have been together for six years and that time has been the happiest of my life. One of our ‘kinks’ is for me to dress up as a Victorian young lady and to undergo the sort of discipline and even oppression that was sometimes handed out to young women during the 19th Century. This led me both to research the era and to making my own clothes that were copies of the more restrictive type of clothes and school uniforms to be found, mainly in mainland Europe, during the middle part of the century.
It was an age when young women, as well as boys, were subject to draconian punishments and when the birch could be used on my sex as well as upon males. It was the era of sometimes extreme corseting, of young women suffering from ‘The Vapours’ and when women had NO rights whatsoever throughout most of the ‘civilised’ world. It was a time when good family and wealthy parents did not guarantee that a young woman would not be subject to the harshest of treatments at the hands of her men folk, or from her governesses.
(Anyone who has read Henri Portalles’ ‘Livres d’Images’ will understand what I am talking about.)
Victorian governesses have always been the source for many stories and books, ‘Jane Eyre’ probably being the most famous. And, as ‘Claire’s Tale’ dealt with the mishaps of a post-school young woman at the hands of her governess, I wanted to reverse the roles in some way in this story. So, in ‘Walking In Silence’ the hapless heroine is a young governess, this time the ‘victim’ of people older and more powerful than herself.
She, like Claire in the earlier story, is my alter ego.
So, if you want to know what happened might have happened to me had I been transported back in time over one hundred and twenty years, please read on.
Oh yes, and the usual warnings. This is a fantasy for grown-ups who are broad-minded and do not object to occasional brutality. But perhaps we should remember that the 19th century was a brutal period, for all its civilised trappings. And women were only too often Society’s victims.
Have fun reading about Arabella Poyser. And thank you, Leviticus, for allowing me to ‘publish’ this story alongside your own mini-masterpieces.
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter One
It seemed an ideal situation. Two well behaved children, a lovely house in the outskirts of the city, and no interfering parents to look over my shoulder all the time. Oh yes; and annual salary of thirty guineas a year which was almost double the amount that I had been previously paid by Mr and Mrs Hetherington when I had to deal with their two boisterous children.
Please allow me to introduce myself before I go on any further. My name is Arabella Poyser. I am the younger daughter of the late Reverend James Poyser and Mrs Poyser of Gillmarston Rectory, situated in the village of Old Gillmarston in the County of Norfolk. It was there that I spent my formative years, growing up in rustic tranquillity until I was sent to Mrs Hughers Academy for Young Lady at the age of thirteen. There I remained until I was twenty years of age; first as a pupil and then as a Student Teacher. Finally, I was given employment as an assistant governess in the house of a wealthy gentleman who lived near Henley in the Royal County of Berkshire.
There I remained for several years before being ‘passed on’ to a neighbouring family, the Hetheringtons where I was sole governess for the first time But then, with Thomas due to depart to become a boarder at Eton College and Miss Sarah approaching seventeen, there was no further need for a resident governess. Mr Hetherington could have merely dismissed me but, instead, he found me a position with the Symingtons. Perhaps the use of the word ‘with’ in this context is incorrect. For the post was not ‘with’ the Symingtons, but ‘at’ one of their houses, looking after their wards
May I explain further? The children I was to look after and tutor were orphans, the offspring of Mrs Symington’s younger brother. He and his wife had died in India during the terrible cholera outbreak of 1869, leaving little Caroline and her elder sister, Charlotte, in their aunt’s hands. She, a society lady who divided her time between her town house in London and a similar residence on the French Riviera, had no time for her wards and so they were ‘kept’ at Fairacres, her husband’s ‘rural retreat’ that she and Mr Symington rarely visited. For several years a Miss Hassack had been the children’s governess but she, for no reason given to me when I accepted the post, had abruptly left. Hence the opening at Fairacres which I most gratefully accepted.
“We have several house rules which you must comply with, Miss Poyser.” Newly arrived at Fairacres, I stood in front of Mr Harding who, it seemed, ran the establishment as Mr Symington’s agent. “They are simple enough, but I would be grateful if you would sign this contract. It merely states that you agree to comply with our house rules.”
He slid a somewhat bulky document across the desk towards me.
“You may use the hall to read the contract,” Mr Harding continued. “When you have done so, please come back here and sign it. If you do not wish to comply with the rules laid down the agreement, I must ask you to leave forthwith. I will have the carriage take you and your bags to the village but, from there on, you must find your own way home.”
My heart stopped for a second, and I felt an icy lump forming in the pit of my stomach. For I had assumed that the post at Fairacres was assured. I had no home to go to. Both my parents were dead, and my sister and her husband lived in Scotland. In addition, I had spent my poor savings on new attire, my old clothes seeming too shabby and worn for such an important family as the Symingtons.
With a trembling hand, I reached out and picked up the document before bobbing a curtsey to the man behind the desk and turning to leave the room. In the hall, my pathetic luggage piled near the front door, I read the clauses of the agreement that I knew I had to sign. I had no alternative.
Ten minutes later I felt a mixture of relief and trepidation. For I had read the contract which I must sign, and had come to the conclusion that, although some of its clauses seemed strange, its general tenor was not unreasonable. It stated that my salary would be paid quarterly, half in arrears, half in advance, either by cash or banker drafts as I might wish. I would be provided free of charge with full board and lodging, including coals for my room and the schoolroom area, food, and light. I might order (via Mr Harding) all items needed for the schoolroom, and I was at liberty to teach the girls in whatever manner I pleased, subject to their spending at least half of the days learning English, Latin, needlework, and The Bible. Finally I would submit a written report on their progress to their guardians once every six months.
So much was more than satisfactory. No young governess could ask for more pleasant or reasonable terms of employment. However it was the clauses listed towards the end of the agreement that caused me concern. Amongst these were ones that stated that, although I might walk in the ground within one hundred yards of the house, I might go no further afield. In addition I must not leave the estate under any circumstances or risk immediate dismissal without notice.
Although nominally I was allowed half a day each week off work, these 26 days per year would be accumulated so that, when I left Fairacres, I would receive payment for them in lieu of actually having any time off at all while employed there. Along with this clause was another one which stated that, when not actually looking after the children, I must remain in my room or in the schoolroom unless Mr Harding wished me to work for him in ‘some clerical capacity in keeping with Miss Poyser’s status and age’. However I might take exercise in the grounds (not further than one hundred yards from the house, of course) providing I obtained Mr Harding’s permission to do so, and providing I was ‘suitably attired’.
These clauses seemed petty rather than worrying. But what did concern me was the final two which I will reproduce in full.
Clause 27. Miss Poyser understands and agrees that Mr Harding (or his assigned deputy) may deal with any dereliction of duty or failure to comply with these rules on Miss Poyser’s part. Mr Harding (or his assigned deputy) may not fine Miss Poyser for such offences or impose financial penalties upon her, but he may employ any other means of correction that seems to him to be commensurate with Miss Poyser’s faults.
Clause 28. Miss Poyser agrees that she is legally bound to obey Mr Harding’s instructions or order in all matters, and that she has NO form of restitution or appeal against any of his rulings, decisions or demands. Therefore she agrees to accept whenever means of correction he may deem fitting in the event of her failing to act properly (as laid down in Clause 27.)
I read the final two clauses time and again, uncertain of what to do. Eventually, I summoned up all my courage, rose from my chair and crossed the vast hallway to knock on the study door once more. When I heard Mr Harding biding me enter, I opened the door and walked in, pale but I hope not with my fear too apparent.
“You agree to sign?” The man behind the desk asked even before I had shut the door behind me.
“Well, sir, there are some items I cam not clear about.”
“What, Miss Poyser? What?” His voice was harsh and abrupt as his looked up at me, his eyes piercing me so that I hurriedly lowered my gaze.
“The last clauses, sir,” I stuttered. “Twenty seven and eight, sir.”
“They are self explanatory. Completely self explanatory. Now, are you going to sign, or shall I send for the carriage to take you away?”
As he spoke, he pushed the pen holder across the desk to me.
“Miss Poyser, I do not have all day to chatter with you. Sign or go!”
With a trembling hand, I reached out and picked up the pen. I carefully dipped it in the ink well, and then signed in the blank space on the final page of the agreement.
I signed my name under the words, ‘I, Arabella Poyser, do of my own free will, and in full knowledge of this document, do sign this agreement and contract as indication of my full compliance, both real and implied, to its terms and conditions, both real and implied, understanding that these conditions will apply in full until such time as I am dismissed from the employment as set down in this agreement and contract.’
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Two
I heard the pen squeak across the paper as I signed my name at the bottom of the contract. The two words formed in shiny fresh ink on the heavy velum.
“Now date it. Please.” Mr Harding’s voice was hard; the ‘please’ abrupt and perfunctory. But I did so.
Thursday, the Fifteenth of October in the Year of Our Lord, Eighteen Hundred and Eighty Three.
Having done as I was told, I stood back from the desk and looked at the man who now reached out to inspect the contract I had just signed.
I would have taken Mr Harding to be in his mid forties. Tall and lean, he seemed to possessed that wiry strength you sometimes find in men of light built. Only his hands, large and spatular, seemed less than neat. For all else about him was precise and composed, from his dispassionate features to his highly polished shoes.
“Now, Miss Poyser, to business.” He spoke in more relaxed tones as he locked the contract away in the desk. “There are only a few points that I wish to clarify before you start work. Firstly, you will have seen in the contract that I have an ‘assigned deputy’. That is Miss Harding, the housekeeper. Yes, we share a common name. Not surprising as she is my sister. But our relationship is unimportant to you, Miss Poyser. What should be important however is the need for you to obey her instructions as though they came from me. You understand that?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, barely able to force my voice above a whisper.
“Good.” He reached behind his chair and dragged on the heavy bell pull hanging from the wall. I knew that, as he did so, a bell would be ringing somewhere in the depths of the building, summoning a servant to answer Mr Harding’s imperious call.
“If you work hard, do as you are told and obey the house rules, I do not see why you should not find working at Fairacres to be congenial employment. You will find me strict but fair and I am sure the same applies to Miss Harding.” The man paused for a moment to allow his words to sink in. “You must also understand that I run this establishment as Mr Hetherington’s agent. Trusted agent, I might say. He is rarely here so, apart from your half-yearly report that I will forward to him, you will have no contact whatsoever with him or with his wife. Think of me as your employer, and you will not go wrong. Miss Poyser.”
He looked up at me with a smile. A smile so thin that his lips barely seemed to move from their usual hard line.
“A final word of caution. Remember you are governess here, Miss Poyser. You are not a ‘common’ servant, and you will stay well clear of such people dealing only with them on a formal basis. Keep your congress with them to a minimum. If you need to discuss anything, broach the subject with Miss Harding first. She will bring it to my attention if she feels it necessary. Otherwise you will keep to the school room and nursery quarters and to your own room, which you will find adjacent to your place of work. Of course, if Miss Harding or I summon you down from your eyrie, or if you wish to take exercise in the park, you may leave your quarters. But otherwise you will confine yourself to that area of the house. Is that clear?”
I nodded, dumbly. Already I could see that working at Fairacres was likely to be a lonely business, but that was a fate only too well know to many governesses.
I did not have long to brood on my fate. There was a sharp knock on the door behind me. I heard someone enter the room and then, with a swish of heavy skirts, a woman strode past me. I had been expecting a servant to answer Mr Harding’s summons. But it was no common servant that swept into the room . Instead it was a black dressed woman, tall and gaunt and only too evidently the sister of whom Mr Harding has spoke off earlier. If the man’s eyes had been cold, this woman’s were icy. She looked me up and down, slowly and clearly revealing a mixture of distrust and dislike, reactions I had done nothing to earn. Eyes focussed on the carpet at my feet, I stood silently as she stalked slowly round me so as to inspect me from every side. Then, after a seeming eternity, she halted by the desk.
“Look at me, girl.” The woman’s voice lacked the apparently cultured tones to be found in her brother’s speech. But I did as I was told and focussed on the hard face three feet from where I stood.
“You do your job and tutor the girls, and we will have no trouble. In fact, you could even grow to like it here. But get any hoity-toity ideas about your station, and I will be down on you, Miss. Down on you hard. Now, come with me and I will show you your room, and where you are going to work. After that I will introduce you to the children.”
She turned on her toes and, with a swirl of fustian skirts, swept from the room. I hurriedly bobbed a curtsey to the man behind the desk and followed in her brisk, long-striding wake.
The next few hours matched the horror that any junior governess knows when she takes up a new post. A strange house, strange servants, hostile looks and an inward fear that you are not going to like this new place of employment. The difference this time was that there were no parents or senior governess to tell me what to do. Just Miss Harding with her brusque tones and freezing stare. I took in what she showed me, asked as few questions as I could and waited with some trepidation to meet the children. However, as we waited in the schoolroom for the nursery maid to bring them to us, Miss Harding made one final remark that made to look at her questioningly.
“When the children are having their supper, you will come down to the servants quarters. I will have a uniform ready for you by then.”
“Uniform?” I queried. “But I am the governess. I wear my own clothes.”
“NOT in this house,” Miss Harding snapped back. “You may have the title of governess but governesses here wear uniforms, as do all employees. Even me.”
She ran her hands over the flat bosom of her black dress, its waist circled by a belt from which dangled a heavy bunch of keys. The dress did not look like any servants uniform I had ever seen. But I could not raise any further queries as, at that moment, the door opened and in were shepherded the two girls who were to be my charges at Fairacres. Thankfully, their arrival meant the departure of Miss Harding, and for the next few hours I was left alone with my new pupils, trying to get to know them.
They were not at all what I had expected. Identically attired in dull brown pinafore dresses, their hair centre-parted and dragged back from their faces into tight buns behind their heads, neither girl could be deemed ‘pretty’. But they had fine bone structure, their eyes were a delightful blue green and their hair the same dark gold shade that even their harsh hair style could not sully. Charlotte, the elder, was approaching seventeen, tall and gangly like an unbroken colt. Her younger sister, now fifteen, lacked her sister’s height but was similarly slender. And both were clearly ill at ease, not raising their eyes to look at me as I introduced myself to them.
Having told them a little about myself, I made them sit at their desks. Then I mounted the low podium on which stood my own larger desk and chair, and proceeded to find about their own accomplishments. Three hours later, I had discovered that my pupils had been poorly taught, knew little Latin, sewed badly, wrote ungrammatical English and were weak at all forms of mathematics. But I also discovered what I thought was a glimmer of very real intelligence in both of them. Yet, strangely, they seemed very reluctant to reveal their agile thought processes, apparently wishing me to think them dull and even stupid.
I was deeply puzzled at this behaviour but I did not have time to probe further as the nursery maid, an surly young woman maybe a year or two older than myself, came in to take the girls away for their supper and to prepare them for bed. I knew, from what Miss Harding has told me of schoolroom routine, that I would not see them again until the next morning. So, after they had trooped out after the nursery maid, I tidied the books we had used, cleaned the girls’ slates and wiped the blackboard on the wall behind my desk. It was only then that I remember that Miss Harding has told me to report to the servants quarters to find out about my ‘uniform’.
By the time I had found my way deep into the bowels of the house, and had been guided to Miss Harding’s ‘private room’, it was nearly seven o’clock and it was plain that the housekeeper was not pleased at my tardy arrival.
“I will be kind to you this time,” she growled at me as I apologised for being late. “But NEVER keep me waiting again. You have had your last warning and there will be no more. Now come with me.”
She lead the way to a well stocked laundry room, its wooden shelves near groaning with linens and napery, towels and sheets, bed clothes and furnishings and, along one wall, shelves piled with what appeared to be servants’ clothing. But she did not look to the shelves as she led me into the room. Instead she pointed to the polished wooden expanse of the central ironing table. On it lay a heap of clothing that seem to contain far more items than was in all my impoverished wardrobe.
“The Mistress requires that you surrender all your personal clothing for as long as you work here. Your possessions will be laundered and kept safely for you, so you can reclaim them when you leave. Until that time you will ONLY wear uniform items of dress. One of the maids will help you take this lot up to your room. And you will then hand over to her every item of clothing you possess, other than what you wear at this moment. When I say ‘every item’, I mean just that. Down to handkerchiefs and fichus, stockings and underwear. All you may retain are your shoes, and those I will inspect tomorrow to ensure their suitability. You understand?”
“Even bonnets?” I asked lamely, thinking of the precious savings I had recently spent on one beautiful bonnet, the first new one I had ever really owned. Before its recent purchase, I had made do with second-hand ones that I reworked for my own use.
“Of course,” the woman snorted. “I said ‘everything, didn’t I?”
Two minutes later I was staggering upstairs, laden down by vast arm-fulls of clothing. Behind me came a raw boned maid, carrying a similar pile. At last we reached my room in what was referred to as ‘The Nursery Wing’. There my new uniform garments were placed on my bed and, as the maid waited, I lay my own pitifully small collection of clothing next to them. When I had done, she picked up the smaller pile, pausing at the door before departing.
“You’ll leave what you wear now, miss, outside you door when you go to bed. I’ll collect them first thing in the morning.” With that she disappeared to begin her long descent back to the servants’ quarters.
That evening I sat in my room and wondered what the future held for me. With no family present, and embargoed by my status from going to the Servants Hall, I would clearly be spending my time alone when not working. It was a fate common to governesses, and one I had come to accept. So, looking at the monstrous pile of garments on my bed, I decided to see just what my uniform comprised of. Half an hour later, I was both pleasantly surprised and also gravely disappointed.
The pleasant surprise came from the quality of the garments I was to wear. Each was extremely well made, every seam double-stitched with minuscule stitches, each fabric of good quality; certainly better than I could have afforded on my small salary. Also I had been supplied with more than adequate numbers of clothes. Four complete sets of underclothing, two corsets, three sets of petticoats, six pairs of stockings, three pairs of gloves, three dresses, two capes, one heavy cloak, and even two bonnets. For night wear, there were four nightdresses and two warm dressing gowns. In addition, I had been given eight lawn handkerchiefs and various other more private items. In fact the number of garments in my possession had virtually doubled in an instant. For that I was indeed grateful. As I was in respect of the garments’ sizes. I had no idea how, but Miss Harding had selected clothing that seemed exactly the right fit for me. Either this was an amazing coincidence, or someone had written to my previous employer and asked for details of my size and shape, facts easy enough to ascertain by anyone looking in my old room and inspecting the clothes I wore whilst in the employ of Mr and Mrs Hetherington.
But disappointment tinged and almost eradicated such pleasurable feelings. For the clothing I had been supplied was unattractive in design, its material heavy, the cut the dresses looked uncomfortable. Even such minor drawbacks as petticoats that appeared too tight for ease of walking merely added to my mounting depression at the thought of wearing such ‘uniform’ during my stay at Fairacres.
Later, as I finished the meal that had been brought up to my room by the surly nursery maid, I felt slightly more sanguine. The food was plain but well cooked and sustaining. A generous slice of beef and onion pie with gravy and boiled potatoes, followed by a bowl of cold summer pudding revealed that I was likely to eat more than adequately at Fairacres. At least, I told myself as I undressed for bed, I will be able to save virtually all of my wages, as I will not need to buy new clothing while employed here. And I had my books to read and my journal to write up each evening. So I should not be too bored, even if my social life would be extremely limited. Limited? I smiled to myself as I struggled into my crisp new nightdress. It would not be ‘limited’. It promised to be non-existent.
After I had bid goodbye to my best dress and all that I had been wearing previously, placing the garments outside my door in a small basket I found there, I knelt by my bed to say my prayers. The litany taught to me by dear Papa, so long departed to join his Maker, rolled out in whispers for the usual ten minutes. Then, cold and stiff, I got to my feet and slipped into bed. I propped myself up on an elbow and snuffed out the candle on the bedside table.
Settling down into my new and strange bed, I thought that Fairacres might prove to be a congenial place to work, regardless of the somewhat worrying aspects I had already come across. After all, I had two pleasant enough girls to teach, and a degree of freedom within the schoolroom not often granted to young governesses. ‘Yes,’ I thought as I slipped, exhausted, into dreamless sleep, ‘I think I am going to like it here.’
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Three
I woke the following morning to knocking on my door. Half drugged by sleep, I called the person outside to enter and sat in bed, blankets pulled high under my chin, as the maid who had helped me the previous evening came in. She carried a heavy tray on which rested a lit candle, a clean washing bowl, and two jugs, one holding cold water and another hot; the latter cooling rapidly after its long journey from the kitchens. Also on the tray was my breakfast; an egg, slices of still warm bread and some fresh-churned butter.
The maid placed all but the candle on my wash stand, removed the bowl and jugs I had used the previous night and left without a word, even ignoring my soft-toned ‘Thank you.’ As she closed the door behind her, the room was again plunged into darkness.
I clambered out of bed and felt my way to the window. Drawing back the dull brown curtains, I looked out into darkness. Clearly in this house, the day commenced early.
Twenty five minutes later I was washed and dressed and my breakfast was eaten. So, after I had tidied my bed chamber, with nothing further to keep me there, I made my way to the schoolroom, my candle held aloft and I made my way along the silent corridors that, bare-boarded, led to my daytime domain. As I expected the schoolroom was empty and, for a moment, I was tempted to go to the girls’ quarters to see if they were getting up. But then I recalled Mrs Harding’s harsh words, as she explained my duties to me the previous day.
“You will be responsible for the girls only during their schoolroom hours. That is seven o’clock through to half past eleven in the morning. And one o’clock to six each afternoon. At all other times the nursery maid will look after them. Under MY supervision. So you will NOT interfere with what happens to them at times other than those I have specified.”
“But what if…………………….”
“NO Buts!” Miss Harding almost snarled the words at me. “You will NEVER involve yourself in anything other than the girl’s schooling. You will not go to their quarters. You will not concern yourself in their meals, in how they dress, in where they sleep, in anything other than what happens in the schoolroom. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Miss Harding. You make yourself very clear.” I murmured in reply.
Fifteen hours after that brief exchange, I waited alone in the schoolroom, watching the light of a drizzling dawn gradually illuminate the room. I snuffed my candle and set to sorting the text books I had found in one of the cupboards until, at long last, the door was thrown open and the nursery maid chivvied Charlotte and Caroline into the schoolroom to start their day’s lessons.
May I speak of myself for a moment before continuing my tale? On that grey morning I was some two months past my twenty seventh birthday, a tall and plain young woman, the sort you pass by in the street without giving her a second glance. I was a governess because it was one of the few respectable ways in which a young woman of my background and station could ward off starvation and ensure she had a roof over her head. In some ways I was suited for such an occupation as I enjoyed looking after small children. But, offsetting that asset, I gained no great satisfaction from merely being a teacher of elder children. Maybe, because I was so near to their own age, I lacked the natural authority of a more senior governess. But, whatever the reason, I found children over the age of thirteen or so hard to control by the force of my will alone.
Perhaps, from what I have related so far of my tale, it may be seen that I enjoy writing; that art and reading being my passions. So it was only natural that I should have attempted to pass on my enthusiasm for the written word to my charges, but I regret that I must confess to little success. For I was (and, indeed, am) a less than brilliant teacher, knowing myself to be competent but uninspiring as a governess. I reckoned myself fair and reasonable with my pupils, but I had suffered sufficiently at the hands of high-spirited children to know that I must always maintain discipline in the schoolroom. Unless shown from the start, even the best mannered child can soon turn into a rebel, and that was not the transformation I was paid to effect.
That morning, as I had been sorting through the book cupboard, I had found the various ‘tools of my trade’ placed reverentially on the top shelf. From the shiny nature of the canes’ handles and the wear upon the straps, it was plain that they had been used, probably frequently, by my predecessor. If indeed they had, it was little wonder that my charges had proved so reserved when I had first met them. For they must have wondered if I was going to prove as fearsome a governess as the departed Miss Hassack.
I flexed the lightest of the three canes between my hands and inwardly shuddered. Like most girls of my class, I had been subjected to corporal punishment from an early age, even though my good if ineffectual Papa had shied away from correcting his daughters, and had left that task to Mama. But, once a pupil at Mrs Hugher’s Academy for Young Ladies, I had been subjected to harsh discipline, so that I was only too aware of the pain that even a light stroke with such an instrument of correction could inflict upon an offender.
Given other means of ensuring schoolroom control, I would have happily broken or burnt those penal instruments. But I was only too aware of my lack of natural authority, and I knew that I might have to resort to those awful devices if persuasion and commonsense did not make the girls maintain their previously obedient and quiet demeanour.
Immediately below the low platform upon which stood my desk and in front of the girls’ places was a book table. It was here that text books were piled ready for use, and it was where the girl’s slates were kept when not being used. Now, I thought, it can serve a new purpose.
I took from the cupboard the medium weight cane and one of the straps. These I proceeded to lay on the book table so that they would always be directly in my pupils’ line of sight every time they glanced up at me behind my desk. The cane, over two foot in length and the breadth of my thumb nail, I placed at the front edge of the table, its curled handle towards where I sat. Behind it I laid out the heavy strap. It was a Scottish tawse, over a foot in length excluding its rounded handle, and split in two for most of its length. Some four inches in width, it would produce much pain if used across a girl’s open palm and, of course, it might also be employed to ‘warm’ her posterior as well.
Looking down at my handiwork, I shuddered again, hoping that I would never have to use those cruel instruments of correction. As a girl, I had been the victim of frequent corporal punishments; not because I was a bad or rebellious pupil, but because teachers at Mrs Hugher’s Academy, including the Principal herself, reckoned that the simplest and most effective way of instilling knowledge into a girl’s head was to drive it there with the rod or birch, unless the pupil assimilated it at the first time of asking. Later, as a pupil-teacher, I was taught just how to use such things, and how best to extract the maximum of pain with the minimum of effort. But I had hated doing so, and had even been whipped myself for not ‘laying on’ hard enough when order to correct some poor girl only a year or two younger than myself.
In consequence, once on my own and employed as an independent governess, I had shied away from using corporal punishment at my previous posts, only using it as a final resort and then with great reluctance. I have to admit that, even then, I employed that means of discipline rather ineffectually too.
When the girls’ entered the schoolroom and made their way to their desks, I saw their eyes widen as they saw the cane and the tawse laid on the book table. But they went to their places and, having curtseyed low and bid me good morning, meekly obeyed my command to sit down, each focussing their gazes up at me, rather than looking down at the book desk. But I knew I had made my point. Now it was time to see whether a threat was sufficient to keep my charges in order when my own malleable character was barely likely to convince them not to test my patience.
The morning passed quietly enough. I had discovered the previous day where the sisters’ worst lack of knowledge lay. So I had them working at their Latin primers for the first two hours, ensuring that they kept their heads down and absorbed in both the written word and my verbal tuition. Once or twice I was surprised by one of the girls translating a sentence with perfect fluency when, moments before she had stumbled over something less complex. Whenever it happened, the girl in question would bring herself up short, almost as though she had made a mistake in doing so well.
When I had pointed this out to the older girl, Charlotte, she had dropped her gaze, and blushed.
“I am sorry, Ma’am,” she stuttered. “I must have translated that passage before. And somehow remembered it.”
“Perhaps,” I murmured to myself, unconvinced by the girl’s explanation. “Anyway, there is nothing to be sorry about. Your translation was excellent. Now turn to page 32, and we will look at the first passage at the top of the page.”
After Latin, I moved on to Divinity, testing them on their Biblical knowledge and setting them a test on the Ten Commandments. By the time the nursery maid arrived to collect the sisters, I had been surprised several times by sudden glimpses of intelligence from each of the girls. After they had gone, I sat at my desk, wondering what was happening, and why Charlotte and Caroline seemed so reluctant to let me know just how well tutored they really were. I was still pondering this quandary when the rude maid, who seemed to have been assigned to look after me, arrived with my luncheon.
As I looked at the suet dumplings in gravy, I realised I was not at all hungry. But I forced some food down, knowing the cause for my lack of appetite. Before dawn, in the candle-lit gloom of my bed chamber, I had made further discoveries concerning my new uniform. The first was that the corsets supplied to me were both longer and more heavily boned than the ones I was used to wearing. As if that was not enough, when I tried to do up my dark grey dress, I found that it was cut tight about the chest and waist, so that I was forced to lace myself severely into my corset so as to compress my torso sufficiently to do up the buttons of my dress. And that garment was itself less than comfortable. Made of serviceable but decidedly heavy serge, it possessed a high boned collar that, when done up, half choked me, its upper edge projecting up into the soft flesh under my jaw.
So it was little wonder that, so tightly laced into my corset and further constrained by the formidable tightness of my dress, I was in no mood to eat such things as suet dumplings, tasty though they might have been. So I merely tasted the food and drunk the water supplied with it.
When the downstairs maid returned to collect the tray, I noticed that she looked at my still partly filled plate, and then how she smiled to herself before leaving without commenting. The smile puzzled me at first. But then I told myself that, as a junior servant, she was probably not as well fed as would be one of my station. Therefore she would have seen what I had left, happy in the knowledge that, on the way back to the servant’s hall, she could stop off in some hidden place and eat my left-overs. Doubtless that would be enough to make the normally hard-faced girl smile for once.
The afternoon passed slowly for me, and probably even more so for my pupils. I had hoped to take them outdoors for a walk but I was informed by the nursery maid that this was only possible if I first cleared such an excursion with Miss Harding. So we worked on the girls’ mathematics, and their needle work, before I tested them on geography, a subject in which they revealed almost total ignorance.
As the clock ticked round to six, the nursery maid entered the schoolroom to retrieve the girls and to take them back to their own rooms. But, before she left, she handed me a folded piece of paper. It contained a cryptic message.
You will come straight down to the laundry room as soon as you have completed this afternoon’s lessons. Do NOT keep me waiting again. Maria Harding (Miss)
The hand may have been that of a poor educated woman but there was no doubting the command in its words. I hurriedly put away my pupils’ books and then, having snuffed the candles that lit the schoolroom, I hurried down the flights of stairs that led to the basement of Fairacres. Breathless, thanks to my exertions and the brutal compression of my stays, I entered the laundry room to find that Miss Harding has arrived before me. She fixed me with an icy stare and then, turning slowly gestured towards the ironing table behind her.
In the middle of its smooth expanse stood a single plate. One that I recognised. For it still held the remains of my luncheon, suet rolls now mired down in a sea of cold congealed gravy.
“Yours, I think,” Miss Harding said in chilling tones.
“Yes, I think so too,” I admitted, my voice barely above a whisper. “I did not feel hungry.”
“Really…………… I wonder what Mr Hetherington would say if he knew that the money he generously allows for your rations was being wasted.” Sarcasm joined ice in the woman’s voice as she glared at me. “Well, girl, it is my duty to ensure that his money is NOT wasted. The contents of that plate will be your supper tonight.”
“But I can’t eat it!” I protested. “Not cold and congealed like that.”
“You will eat it, girl. Because, if you do not, it will be sent to your room for your breakfast tomorrow morning. If you do not consume it then, you will find it appearing for your lunch. And so on. Until you DO eat it. Unless, of course, you wish to starve yourself to death.”
I felt all fight drain out of my body. I knew I was beaten.
“I will eat it, Miss Harding,” I said slowly.
“Now?” The woman asked.
“If you wish.”
From a pocket in her dress, the woman produced a spoon which she handed to me. Shuddering, my hands trembling, I took it from her and walked to the table. A chair stood nearby and I sat down on it, and began to eat.
I will not trouble my readers with the details of that meal. Suffice it to say that it took all my fortitude to force the vile dish down. But in the end the plate was clean enough to satisfy even Miss Harding. Feeling nauseous, I got up from the chair and started for the door.
“And where do you think you are going, miss?” Miss Harding’s harsh voice stopped me in my tracks.
“To my room.”
“Ma’am!” she barked abruptly at me.
“To my room, ma’am,” I said in a defeated whisper.
“You think that just eating your lunch is recompense enough for the bad example you have set the servants who saw that you had returned your food?”
“I hope so, ma’am.”
“Well, your hopes are not going to be met.” The woman snapped out the words as she strode across the room. “Far from it. For you, my girl, must be taught that, in this household, NO-ONE wastes food.”
I watched as she opened a cupboard set on the far wall, her body hiding whatever it was she extracted from its depths.. Then she turned again to face me, and I saw that, in her right hand, she held a rod. A three foot length of black malacca cane. It was an instrument of correction the like of which I had never seen before, so brutal did it look in Miss Harding’s white knuckled hand.
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Four
My mouth must have dropped open when I saw the dreadful rod in Miss Harding’s hand. Shying away, putting the wide expanse of the ironing table between us, I half turned, determined to run from the room and the crazed woman who came slowly towards me. Then, to my horror, I saw Mr Harding standing in the doorway. I halted in my tracks and watched as he closed the door behind him, turning a heavy key in its lock.
“Miss Harding told me about your wasteful ways,” he said slowly as he pocketed the key. “I had hoped that you would settle down here without my having to show you that we don’t put up with stupidity at Fairacres. But it seems it will be necessary to teach you a salutary lesson, so that your behaviour will be less self-centred in future.”
“You can’t,” I babbled, terrified and confused. “You can’t do this to me!”
“Oh, but we can.” The man smiled as he walked towards me. “The contract you signed yesterday gives us every right to punish you as and how we wish.”
Suddenly he reached out and snatched my arm. I struggled briefly but he was too strong and dragged me to him so that his face was inches from mine, her cold eyes boring into mine.
“Miss Poyser, we can approach what has to be done in two ways. Either you are sensible and accept your punishment quietly and like an adult. Or you can make us use less acceptable means of ensuring you are properly corrected. And, if we are made to use force to subdue you, I will greatly increase the degree of your punishment. Greatly increase it. Now, what is it to be? An unseemly scuffle which we will inevitably win? Or you acting like a well brought-up young lady, and accepting your punishment as being correct and due?”
My head spun, and I think I might have collapsed had not Mr Harding dug his fingers into my arm, holding me upright.
“Well, Miss Poyser? Which is it to be?”
“I will accept my punishment,” I stammered, my voice barely audible.
“Excellent,” I heard him murmur as he guided me round the table to the far end. “Now spread you legs, please, and bend forward to lie on the table.”
Too shocked and weak to think, I obeyed, my corsets groaning from my movements. Behind me I heard a swish of material and, glancing sideways through tear-filled eyes, I saw Miss Harding kneeling down. A moment later she had tied my left ankle to the low cross bar that joined the wide-spread table legs. Then moving across behind me, she fastened the other ankle in place so my legs were spread under the heavy fall of my skirts to the maximum width permitted by my tight petticoats.
A hand, Mr Harding’s I think, pressed down on my back between my shoulder blades, pinning me to the tables smooth surface. Then I felt something pass across my back a few inches lower down. It was tightened and I began to realise that a broad strap must have been passed over my back and down under the table, to be drawn in until I was flattened against the smooth wood beneath my chest and torso, crushed down so that breathing, already made problematical by the compression of my stays, became painful. I gasped for air in quick shallow pants, fearing that my ribs might break under the awful pressure imposed upon them..
Helpless now, I closed my eyes and sobbed gently, terrified of what I knew was to come. I had not been whipped for years, but the memory of those awful occasions when I had been disciplined at Mrs Hughers Academy was still branded on my psyche.
As I contemplated my fate, a wrist was grabbed and then the other one, to be tied together and then pulled across the table so that I was racked out on its surface. I must have moaned or perhaps even protested at my cruel handling. I can not recall which. But I do know that my hair was tight gripped, my head pulled up and back and, as I started to scream or cry out, a bulky wad of material was rammed into my mouth. Choking on the fearful gag, I felt something being tied round my head and between my teeth so the material was thrust deeper into my mouth, muffling my cries and making me choke on its mass.
“Miss Poyser, you will BEHAVE!” I heard Mr Harding voice close to my ear, its tone harsh and curt. “Cease your struggles and make no noise. Or your punishment will be increased.”
I did my best to obey, knowing my own helplessness as I listened to the man continuing his monologue.
“Before your correction starts, there are one or two points that I must make plain to you. It may occur to you to leave her after we have finished with you now. Do NOT try to do so. You have no clothes and no money. In fact, unless you leave naked, we will have you taken as a thief for stealing the uniform you wear. That is, providing you can leave the grounds. Which is something I doubt you capable of doing. So, Miss Poyser, you are best advised to accept your punishment and to return to your work, a better and more careful young woman. It gives me no pleasure to see you being corrected in this manner. But it is my duty to run this house smoothly. If that calls for me to have you flogged, so be it. It is what I will do.”
With my eyes tear filled, I sensed rather than saw Mr Harding move away from the table. When he next spoke, his voice came from the direction of the door.
“I will now leave you to undergo chastisement, Miss Poyser. The proprieties must be observed and I do not witness the exposure and humiliation of female staff. Miss Harding will now take charge. And I hope and pray that we never meet in such a manner again.”
I heard the key turn in the lock and the door open and then, after a brief pause, close again. I was alone with the woman who must be standing behind me, and I was more afraid than when her brother had been present. I moaned into my gag, trying to beg for mercy but the sound that emerged past the wadded material was muffled almost to extinction, no words audible in its hushed sound.
Then, to my horror, I felt my skirts being raised, then my petticoats. I struggled briefly against my bonds, but I could barely move a fraction of an inch and, to make sure my efforts were only too soon terminated, the unseen woman hissed at me to be still.
Skirts and petticoats dawn up and raised to waist height, my voluminous flannel nether-garments were then dragged down. I felt cold air above my stocking tops, the back of my thighs exposed as was the curve of my posterior. I shuddered and bitterly recalled such sensations when readied for correction at Mrs Hugher’s Academy, and fear welled up in my throat in sickly bile whose egress was blocked by the plug of fabric that filled my mouth.
“There we are, my girl. All ready for punishment.” Listening to Miss Harding voice, I was shocked to hear what was nearly a friendly note in her words. Previously everything she had said to me had been curt and near rude. Now she had adopted a relaxed tone of voice as if we were discussing flowers over tea and cakes.
“I am now going to whip you,” she continued in the same conversational tones. “And when I have finished you will return to your room. There you may do what you wish to ease your suffering. But tomorrow morning you will act as though this ‘incident’ never happened. But be warned, if it is reported to me that you behave abnormally on the morrow, you and I will have a second meeting down here in the evening. I hope that is clear, my girl.”
Howling soundlessly into my gag, I vaguely heard her move behind me. I closed my eyes, my exposed nether cheeks clenching in my fear as I waited for the first blow to fall. But the woman had not finished tormenting me with words.
“Oh, I forgot to mention something.” She said, almost with a laugh in her voice. “If any of your clothes are marked afterwards, just put them outside your room for the maid to bring down to the laundry. She will not be surprised to see them blood stained.”
Almost as the final syllable was falling from her lips, I heard the hideous whistle of a heavy rod cutting through the air. I heard it strike flesh and then, after the most tiny of pauses, the pain of its impact hit me.
Dear reader, if you have been whipped by governess, parent or pedagogue, you will know with bitter memories what I speak off when I say that I felt my skull to be exploding as the pain surged into my consciousness. You will understand when I speak of a line of cold fire across my haunches, fire white hot and sinking deeper and deeper into my flesh. You will no doubt recall the convulsions as your body tried to tear itself away from the next blow. You will again hear your screams echoing round your brain, and remember your garbled pleas for mercy. Yes, dear reader, we share those terrible memories, and I am sure you weep for me as I speak of the murderous pain that even the first stroke caused me, as Miss Harding brought that monstrous rod flailing down across the soft flesh of my posterior.
And then came the second stroke. The horror of the first blow was consigned to the void when the next struck home. I screamed afresh, head shaking, fingers twitching as I struggled against my bonds. I screamed afresh and no-one heard me. Probably not even Miss Harding as she readied herself to deliver the next stroke, so gag-muffled must have been my shrill cries.
The third. And a fourth. And then the fifth. Evenly spaced, they were well enough separated in time for each to be its own dire punishment. Each one enough to teach me to always eat what I was given. Each one more than enough to ensure my contrition and every one on its own sufficient to make me desire but one thing in life – to please Mr Harding and Miss Harding in all that I did, then and in the future.
When the sixth has struck home, searing me from head to toe with its all consuming agony, I collapse, still and beaten, barely conscious but somehow sure that I had somehow survived my punishment. My posterior felt as though someone had held a red hot griddle across it for half a lifetime, and I knew I would live in pain for days to come. But I had survived, I had………………………….
Then the seventh smashed hope, driving breath and hope from my tortured body. And an eighth. And a ninth and……………………. I may have fainted before the tenth and final blow. Perhaps it is my mind that has shut off the memory of that terrible last stroke. I do not know. All I remember is the wad of material being dragged from my mouth and sucking in air to burning lungs. And I remember pain. That pain I remember best of all.
I do not recall making my way back upstairs to my bed chamber. Perhaps I was helped, perhaps I crawled; I am not sure. But I do remember finding myself slumped across my bed, half kneeling, sobbing hysterically and feeling that my whole posterior had been slow-roasted. It probably took me an hour to undress; each movement sent shafts of fresh agony coursing through my body, and I wept and moaned as I slowly removed garment after garment from my sweat soaked body. I tried to wash but gave up, dragging my nightdress over my trembling carcase, screaming as its material grazed my backside. Then I set to clearing the room. Outside the door I placed blood stained under garments, knowing that, in the morning, my nightdress must join them.
Finally, unable to pray, I dragged myself onto my bed and lay face down. Still crying, still wracked in pain. My first full day at Fairacres had ended, and every last ounce of the previous night’s optimism had been drained aware to leave bitter despair in its place.
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Five
I slept little, if at all, that night. By the time the maid arrived before dawn with my water and breakfast, I was already on my feet, not wanting her to see me lying on my stomach, the back of my nightdress stained with the final evidence of my punishment. She would doubtless be aware of what happened the previous evening – Miss Harding has made that clear. But I was not going to give the sour faced maid the opportunity to gloat.
I stood, shivering in the pre-dawn chill, as she placed the washing bowl and jugs on the washstand, and my breakfast on the writing table. She said nothing until she reached the door. Then she turned towards me.
“I’ll fetch that night dress later, Miss. And anything else you wish to put out for laundering too.” As she spoke I thought I heard a hint of grudging admiration in her voice.
As soon as she had left, I fell upon my breakfast. Having gone supperless the previous evening, I was ravenous. No threats of further punishment were needed to make me finish every last crumb of that meal. But, when it was finished, I knew that I had to face up to the awful task of washing and tending to my poor ravaged posterior. That I moaned and cried out once or twice during this awful business is of no surprise. But I held back my tears and, in time, stood naked in the centre of the room, my soiled nightdress at my feet and ready to face the new day.
I will not bother my readers with a description of what it was like to dress that morning. Lady-readers who have drawn under-garments, petticoats and heavy skirts over a freshly chastised posterior will not need reminding of the awful misery of such a task. For the rest of my readership, I will merely state that it was a highly painful and unpleasant process but one accomplished in the end. At last dressed, I dashed cold water on my face in the hope of hiding my swollen lids and reddened eyes, and made my way to the schoolroom.
That morning I taught standing up, making sure that I was employed at the blackboard for much of those endless hours as possible and, at other times, prowling the room as though checking that my docile pupils were not cheating at the tests I set, nor skimping on the work assigned to them. I hope I gave them no cause to believe me freshly chastened for, had they done so, my power of command in the schoolroom would have been grievously compromised.
When the nursery maid came to collect my charges for their mid day break, I noticed how she looked at me with hooded eyes. I smiled back at her and spoke lightly about nothing important. For she was, I was certain, yet another of Miss Harding’s spies, just like the maid who served me in my room. The woman acknowledged my words with a nod but, as with the other maid, I felt that she might have been impressed by my stoicism. Little did she know what that smile cost me, nor how my body shook under the concealment of my clothes. As soon as the door closed behind her, I limped to my desk and leant over it, my weight resting partly on my hands, tears but a part of an inch away from emerging. There was a knock on the door, and I straightened up and was smiling as the other maid brought in my luncheon. Fried mutton chops and the inevitable potatoes with a helping of anaemic cabbage along side the meat.
I thanked the maid and, for a second, I thought she was going to say something. But, instead she turned and left the schoolroom without a word. It was then that I saw the folded paper on the tray, half concealed under the plate.
My legs turned to jelly, my stomach to water as fear surged through my whole being. But I had done nothing wrong, I told myself as I reached out with a shaking hand to pick up the paper. Turning it over, I discovered it was sealed which seemed strange until I realised that an unsealed note would doubtless have been read by the maid. Carefully I lifted the seal with a paperknife and read the words written with a neat, spidery hand that most definitely was not Miss Harding’s barely legible scrawl.
Miss Poyser. I wish you to know that it gave me no pleasure in sanctioning your punishment last night. But you must know that, if you fail to behave properly, I will sanction its repeat or worse so as to maintain good order in this household. That is my primary task.
The matter is now in the past and I trust that you may make a fresh start at Fairacres. For I do not bear grudges and merely wish to see this household running smoothly and well.
On another subject, I would like to discuss a matter with you. I shall come to the schoolroom after classes this afternoon. I hope that this will be convenient for you.
With respect I remain Josuah H. Harding (Agent.)
I read the missive several times, astonished at its almost placatory tone. “I hope this will be convenient to you” was barely the sort of language that the man had used the previous night. Perhaps he had decided that I had been overly chastised by his sister. After all my fault was trivial. Yet he also threatened further dire punishments if I did not “behave properly”.
In the end I ceased trying to find a solution to this puzzle and just wrote a brief note in reply, saying that I would remain in the schoolroom until such time as he might wish to come to see me. Lacking sealing wax or a seal, I merely folded up the note and, when she came to collet my tray, instructed the maid to hand it to Mr Harding with utmost expediency.
The afternoon dragged by with slowness that was trying for me and doubtless crushing for my pupils. They behaved well enough, did their work with little sparkle or enthusiasm, but without giving me any reason to chastened them for slackness. Latin followed Bible Study which, in turn had succeeded Mathematics. By late afternoon candles stood in holders on the girls’ desks and on mine, the far corners of the room sunk into wintery gloom. I grew cold and I had to rub my hands together before I wrote on the blackboard. The previously mild weather has clearly been replaced by chillier days. I looked at the empty grate at the back of the room, and determined to ask Mr Harding if we might now have a fire in the schoolroom.
At long last the nursery maid entered to collect her charges, the girls bobbing their curtseys to me before leaving the room. As the door closed behind them, I realised that I knew nothing about the sisters, apart from having some idea of their scholastics shortcomings. I knew nothing of their likes and dislikes, of their previous lives, of what they did when not in the schoolroom. They remained enigmas.
I had just finished tidying their books away when I heard heavy footsteps in the uncarpetted corridor outside the door. Moments later Mr Harding entered the room. I would like to say he strode in, but he was too neat in all his movements to stride. Instead he walked with the same precision as he did all else.
I curtseyed low and, on rising, indicated my own chair on the dais, asking him if he would like to be seated. He nodded and sat down while I remained standing, hands clasped behind my back, almost like a schoolgirl before her teacher.
“You are recovered from last night?” He asked, looking up with piercing eyes so that I was forced to lower my gaze and look at the wooden floor at my feet.
“Thank you, sir. As much as can be expected.”
“Good. The matter is closed, unless you force me to reopen it. Now I have one or two things to discuss. Firstly, are there any things you require for your work? Books, pens, ink, the like?”
“We are well supplied for now, sir.” I replied before taking my courage in my hands and broaching what I knew would be a trickier subject. “However, sir, it has turned cold and I wondered if we might have the fire lit during schoolroom hours.”
With my eyes lowered I could not see Mr Harding’s expression, but I somehow felt his eyes boring into me again.
“A fire? At this time of year? My dear Miss Poyser, you have clearly been employed in a most eccentric household if they had fires in the schoolroom at this time of year. In winter, yes, they may necessary. But not now.”
I heard him get up from his chair and, when I looked up, he had moved to stand near the girls’ desk, his gaze on the empty grate. Then he turned to face me.
“Your pupils have warm clothes, Miss Poyser. Tell the nursery maid to dress them in them.” He paused and frowned. “No, I will get Miss Harding to instruct her to dress the girls more warmly. We do not want them catching chills. And, if you are cold too, I suggest that there are mittens amongst the clothes given you as uniform and warm capes too. You will wear them.”
“If you say so, sir,” I murmured, again knowing I was defeated and that no fire would burn in the schoolroom until he deemed it to be winter once more.
“I say so,” the man replied in minatory tones. Then, his voice lightening, he continued, “I have another thing to discuss with you. Your predecessor, Miss Hassacks, used to take the girls out two or three times a week, letting them walk in the ground for an hour or two on such afternoons. I am charged with ensuring that the girls remain in good heath. So, Miss Poyser, you will exercise them too. I suggest each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, commencing tomorrow. One hour and one half each time, shall we say?”
My heart leapt; at last an excuse to leave this oppressive schoolroom and to breath God’s good air.
“Of course, Mr Harding. I would be only to happy to take the girls out for exercise.” I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice and, for the first time since arriving at Fairacres, I actually felt like smiling. Of course, I did not. No well trained governess would dream of betraying her emotions in front of a superior. Nor, for that matter, in front of an inferior.
“Excellent, I will make sure the nursery maid knows of this plan.” Mr Harding, far superior to me, could afford to smile. And this he did; briefly and with his mouth drawn in a tight, barely curving, line.
Too soon he turned to leave. I dropped into another curtsey and heard him go from the room before I had risen to my feet. I sighed and then grimaced for curtseying when one’s backside has been recently flayed is no laughing matter. But at least now, with Mr Harding and the nursery maid gone, I could limp and nurse my pain to myself, feeling how my under clothing had adhered to the newly formed scabs along the deeply etched lines where the rod had torn into my flesh twenty four hours earlier. It would be a long time before I forgot Miss Harding’s handiwork, of that I was sure.
I returned to my bed chamber to find my evening meal already standing on my table. That the soup was near cold and the bread hardening did not matter to me. I ate it without tasting it, knowing that my plates must be returned clean of sign of food. This I did happily, as I was still hungry. But then hunger is something known well to many governesses. At least I was well enough fed at Fairacres, and for that I was deeply grateful. But I was not grateful when I tried to remove my under garments. But in the end I soaked them free of my wounds, a further small piles of soiled clothing being left outside my door as evidence of my sin and of the retribution brought down upon me for my failings.
That night I slept on my side, waking with a muffled scream when I rolled on to my back and posterior. But at least I slept better than the previous night, the hideous wounds across my nether cheeks now healing and no longer oozing to stain my clothing. But, when the maid arrived with my water and breakfast, I was already on my feet, a blanket round my shoulders against the bitter cold of the high attic room. Drawing back the curtain I saw the light of my candle reflected on the ice formed on the glass. I stepped back, shivering, before moving to the wash-stand to perform my morning ablutions. Then, teeth chattering, my hands turning blue, I dressed as rapidly as possible. Minutes later, even though I was fully dressed, I could still feel the chill invading my clothes. I moved to the wardrobe and took one of the capes that cape with my uniform clothes from its hook. I threw it round my shoulders and then set to eat my rapidly congealing breakfast. This time, wincing, I sat down to eat for the first time for a day and a half.
Cold was an old enemy. At school, during what seemed like endless winters, we had to break the ice that would have formed overnight in our washing bowls. Chillblains came and stayed through till Spring, food arrived from the kitchen cold and we shivered ourselves to sleep under thin blankets each night. Even in a well-run household like my first employer’s, servants rooms were never heated and, as a junior governess, I was deemed on a par with a senior scullery maid and was allowed no fire in my tiny chamber. Here at Fairacres I had been promised coals for fires but it was plain that Mr Harding was a gentleman who deemed it to be winter only when the ground was frozen hard and snow lay waist deep upon it. Obviously I would have to relearn all the old means of keeping warm I had employed as a schoolgirl.
My meal finished down to the last crumb of bread, my chamber tidied, I glanced at myself in the cracked mirror on my dressing table. I saw a wide-eyed young woman, face pinched with cold, looking back at me, half of her face deep in shadow, the other illuminated by the candle’s flickering flame. I paused a moment, gazing at my reflection and wondering if any man would think me attractive. And I wished I knew what men found attractive in women. All I saw was a serious face framed in severely combed dark gold hair, the straight locks parted in the middle to be pulled hard back into a compacted bun at the base of the young woman’s skull. And the rest? The mouth – too wide. The nose – too short, insolently turned up slightly at its end to rudely accentuate wide nostrils. The eyes – too wide-set, too enquiring. Their lids – too heavy. The eyebrows – too straight and the left one marred by a childhood scar that bisected it half way along its length. The chin – maybe be pleasant enough, as were the well defined cheek bones. But the whole? No charming dimples, so rosy cheeks, no sweetly bowed lips, and melting eyes. No golden ringlets. Nothing that could judged as being beautiful by the conventional standards of feminine beauty in the year of Our Lord 1883.
I shivered and turned away, knowing that lonely years stretched ahead of me as I gradually aged, alone, another spinster governess moving from post to post until she was too old to find employment. And then?
I suppressed a moan and, grabbing the mittens from off the table, hurried from my chamber before the awful spectre of my future could catch up with me.
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Six
The schoolroom seemed even colder than my chamber as I arrived, my upraised candle illuminating its darkness with a flickering light. I looked up at the clock’s slow hands and saw that I still had twenty minutes to wait before my pupils were due. I walked to my desk and, having placed the candle in the holder there, I pulled on the thick knitted mittens I had taken from my room. They were welcome even if their cut-off fingers did leave the last knuckle of each digit exposed so that I had to blow on them to get some warmth into the stiff joints.
My breath came in white billows of cold-induced steam. I could barely believe it was only October and yet this freezing. So I moved across the room to peer out of the window, but like my own, its panes were white with ice and I could see nothing but impenetrable blackness beyond. Shivering, I pulled my cape round my body, welcoming the garment’s heavy mass as, with shaking hands, I began buttoning the floor-length cape up around myself in an effort to retain whatever bodily heat I had left.
I closed its warmly lined material about me down almost to waist-level. Then, I dropped its fabric and sought to draw it round me so that I might push my hands out through its arm slits and then , with only hands exposed to the freezing air, fasten the remaining buttons. For a moment or two I felt blindly for the slits. When chilled hands could not find them, I turned towards the candle and looked down, seeking them in the cape’s walls. A moment or two’s searching told me the strange fact that the garment had no arm slits. It seemed that, once buttoned down to its hem, the wearer would have her hands and arms trapped under its folds, only being able to use them by lifting up its hem and thus freeing a hand. Obviously the seamstress who made the cape had been guilty of an oversight in not inserting arm-slits into the garment. But that, I thought, is something I can legitimately ask Miss Harding to have rectified. Alternatively, I could return this cape to my wardrobe, and just wear its twin in future. As that garment undoubtedly would have hands openings in place.
Glancing at the clock I saw that I still had ample time to go to my chamber and to change into the other cape. So, retrieving the candle from its holder, I made my way back to my room. There I was in for another surprise. For the other cape, the twin of the one I wore, was also devoid of arm slits. Puzzled, I returned to the schoolroom.
The conundrum of the lack of arm-slits soon left my mind as I prepared for the day that lay ahead. Books had to be put out, mathematical problems selected, fresh chalk retrieved from the supply cupboard and the candles at my charges desk lit. Eventually, when returning to the dais, my eye fell on the book table, and I saw the heavy rod lying in front of the tawse. I picked it up, flexing it between my mittened hands, and wondered if I would ever be called upon to use it. I hoped not, as the memory of my own punishment was still etched in pain on my mind, and I most sincerely had no wish to inflict even one fraction of that misery upon either of my charges. Yet I was beginning to worry about them. There was something strange about the way they seemed so listless and almost lacking in intellect. When I tested them they always seemed to do just well enough to avoid even verbal chastening. But I had the impression that they could so easily have done so much better.
‘Perhaps,’ I thought to myself, ‘it is time to encourage them to try harder, and to reveal how intelligent – or otherwise – they really are.’
The idea was only half formed in my mind when the door opened and the nursery maid ushered in the sisters. I watched them go to their desks and then, in perfect unison, drop into deep curtseys before rising to the feet after a silent count of five, and sitting meekly down in their places. I also noted that they, like me, were now more warmly dressed than the previous day, hip-length capes hiding their arms as my own, longer version, did for me. Of course their outer coverings were pf the same dull brown colour as the rest of their clothing, whereas mine attire was all of clerical grey, clearly a sober enough colour for a humble governess to wear. But, a few minutes later when they had to open their desks to retrieve their slates, I noted that the sisters also wore short-fingered woollen mittens, almost as though our uniforms had been designed by the same hand.
But their attire was of no interest to me. Instead my mind was again focussed on the puzzle of their behaviour. They seemed such dull pupils, yet I was sure they were not. But I was in no rush for any confrontation, and I took my time in making them prepare a passage of Latin for verbal translation later in the day. Then after a cold slow ninety minutes, I ordered them to put away their Latin primers and to get their slates out for a mathematics test. The previous days they had revised their scales of weights and measures, and it was on that I was going to test them.
“You will leave your desks when I ordered you to,” I said brusquely to the girls. “Charlotte, you will stand in the right hand corner behind your desk: Caroline in the left hand corner, both facing the wall. There you will remain until I have written the questions on the blackboard. When I have finished, I tell you to return to your desks. You will do so WITHOUT looking up at the blackboard. You understand?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the sisters replied together softly.
Making pupils stand facing away from the blackboard while test questions were written there was a common enough ruse, employed by most governesses so as to introduce an element of tension, even fear, into their charges. This time, I wished the sisters to be nervous about the coming test, and so I employed this method upon them, just as it had been used upon me when I was their age.
“Move to your corners…….. Now !”
The girls rose as one, stepped away from their desks, took one pace to their right, dropped into the usual curtseys, and after a count of five, turned and hurried to the back corners of the schoolroom. As soon as they were both facing the wall, I rose from my own desk and started to write on the black board the questions I had prepared earlier..
For ten minutes the silence and stillness in the room was broken only by the harsh squeak of chalk on the blackboard and my movements as I wrote out the test. Occasionally I would glance back over my shoulder to check on the sisters. But each time they stood motionless and silent facing the wall. No fidgeting, no coughs, no shuffling came from their corners. Clearly they had been well trained by Miss Hassack and her predecessors.
At least I was ready and I instructed them to return to their desks. I was pleased to see that both focussed their gaze on the floor and did not look up even after they had curtseyed and sat down at their desks.
“Very well,” I said as soon as they were settled. “You have one half hour to complete the questions I have written here. You may use the right side of your slates for working out your calculations – adding and subtracting and multiplying and dividing. Use both side of your slates if need be and do NOT erase your workings-out.”
I paused for a moment or two, letting my words sink in.
“You may commence NOW!” I glanced across the dimly lit room at the clock, noting the time was 9.52 am. At 10.22 their writing time would be up.
The girls looked at the board, Caroline’s mouth moving slightly as she silently read the first question to herself. It was a simple starter, one that any well educated young woman should be able to answer.
If a recipe states that it requires two pounds of sifted flour to make a cake for 15 persons, how many tablespoons of flour will be required to make a cake for 3 people ?
The answer, as I am sure that all lady readers will have already worked out instantly in their heads, is nineteen full tablespoons and one fifth of a spoonful. However the younger sisters, Caroline, being young and inexperienced, was forced to work our her sums on her slate. The elder girl however read the question on the board and then wrote down her answers with only a moment or two’s hesitation. This I watched through veiled lids, thinking that Miss Charlotte was more intelligent that she would like to make out. To work out the answer to that question in one’s head required better brains and steadier intellect than she had so far revealed to me.
After twenty minutes or so, Caroline was still struggling with her sums. But her sister, from what I could see of her slate, had completed all the test. But, clever enough not to let me easily see that fact, was writing down some figures at the side of her slate.
“Time!” I called out as the clocks hand reached twenty two minutes past the hour. “Hands behind your backs and clasp elbows.”
The girls immediately did as they were told, their capes briefly billowing as they adopted the pose that would not allow them to alter the answers on their slates, right mittened hand gripping left elbow and vice versa.
I rose from my desk and made my way to where they sat. Both girls, their eyes demurely lowered, sat stock still as I picked up their slates and return to the dais, there to correct their answers.
It was the younger girl’s work that I looked at first. Much working out adorned her slate and it was clear that she had struggled to finish the test in time. But she had done reasonably enough. She had three questions that were wrong, although she had revealed that was mainly owing to mathematical errors rather than not knowing her tables and scales. In addition she had not quite completed the final question, although her workings showed she was on the right track and would have probably reached the correct solution had she been given a few minutes longer to complete the test.
I marked her as having achieved 6 out of 10. Not a brilliant result but satisfactory enough. Very much what I would have expected from a girl of her age and education.
Then I turned to Miss Charlotte’s slate. Here was a totally different set of answers. Not so much in their results but in the way the girl had approached them. Neatly arrayed down the left hand site of the slate were the answers, seven correct, three wrong. In other circumstances I might have considered that to be passable; not good but sufficiently accurate enough to avoid bringing her to task for carelessness or lack of knowledge. However the minimal workings at the sides of the slate appeared to bear no relation to the answers. They seemed random figures that looked to have been written there for effect rather than to aid the girl with her sums. I was only too plain that the girl had added them so as to convince me how hard she had worked to achieve her answers, something that my carefully observation had shown to be a sham.
I sighed and knew what I would have to do with Miss Charlotte. I picked up the slates and walked to the girls’ desk. I stopped first at Caroline’s.
“You must be more careful in future, Caroline. And please do NOT confuse perches and furlongs in future. But you have done well enough. I am pleased with your efforts, if not totally satisfied with your overall accuracy. Just try a little harder from now on.”
I placed the slate back on the girl’s desk and I could sense rather than hear her sigh of relief. For I had written ‘Pass’ at the bottom of her slate.
I moved a few paces across to her sister’s desk and placed her slate on the desk top. I watched as I saw her eyes widen as she saw the dread word ‘FAIL’ written at the base of her efforts.
“I think that you and I have some problems to clear up, my girl,” I said as coldly as I could. “I think you are under-estimating me, Miss. I think you are producing work that you think will meet my requirements but no more. I think you are being DEVIOUS. Now, stand up.”
The girl, red spots showing on her pale cheeks, did as she was told, struggling from her seat with her hands still clasped behind her.
“How old are you, Miss?” I asked rhetorically.
“Seventeen, Ma’am,” came her whispered reply.
“I thought you were sixteen.”
“It was my birthday yesterday,” came the soft reply that made me stop in my tracks. But only for a moment. I knew what had to be done, and the fact that I was unaware of the girl’s birthday would not prevent me from doing my duty.
“Well, girl,” I said after a moment’s pause, “your birthday present from me is one I trust you remember. And I hope you always remember why you received it. Take off your mittens.”
Without a look to see if my order was being obeyed – I knew it would be – I walked to the back of the room and, from the cupboard, selected a suitable instrument with which to administer my pupil’s birthday present. With it in my hand, I walked back to face Charlotte, seeing how her eyes widen when she saw what I carried.
“You are no longer a child, my girl. At seventeen you are a young woman. And as such you will be punished like one. You are fortunate that I cannot prove you have been trying to make me think you are less intelligent than you are. Had I cast-iron prove, you would have suffered much more than will now be the case. But, even so, you are going to learn a VERY salutory lesson., and a very painful one.”
I turned and faced the other desk where sat an ashen faced Caroline. I pointed to the corner of the room behind her.
“Go and stand where you were before,” I snapped. “Face the wall again. You may listen to your sister’s punishment so that you too can learn not to under-estimate me, nor to believe that I can be easily fooled.”
The girl, clumsy with her arms behind her, scurried into the corner as I turned to face her sister. I saw that her mittens lay neatly side by side on her desk and that she too had returned her arms to their appointed posture.
“You know what is about to happen?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” came her almost inaudible reply.
“Miss Hassack whipped your hands before?”
“Very well. You write with your right hand? So we will start with that one. Hand out NOW!”
The girl’s heavy cape flapped about her slender frame as she brought her hands out from under its shelter. Grasping her right wrist with her left hand, she held out her open hand, palm uppermost, at just above waist-level. I barely glanced at it as I flexed the cane between my hands. Not as thick or heavy as the one that lay on the book table, it was the same diameter as my fourth finger and was a good two foot long. I moved to the side, standing level with the girl’s right shoulder, cane now in my right hand.
Carefully measuring the distance by bringing the rod slowly down until it was over the girl’s open palm, I felt calm. I was only doing my duty and Charlotte was to be punished because she was devious and chose to hide her natural ability from me. She would have to pay for that crime, for such was the natural order of things.
“You will not move you hand until ordered to,” I warned her. “And, if you flinch from a blow, it will merely be repeated…… twice over.”
I raised the rod, my hand at shoulder level, wrist cocked so the end of the rod pointed to the ceiling. Then, using skill acquired over my years as a pupil teacher and then a governess, employing both arm and wrist to increase the rod’s speed, I brought the instrument of correction slicing down through the air to crack home across the girl’s open palm.
I hear her breath being sucked in, followed by a moan that she cut off as she bit her lips against the pain. As I slowly raised the rod again, I could see the mark of impact running across her palm, just below the pads at the base of her fingers. The hand shook but she held it steady and we both prepared for the next stroke.
Again I brought the rod flashing down, this time with more speed and an extra downwards motion of the wrist just before impact. This time the young woman gave a gasp followed by a low moan as the pain surged through her body. Glancing at her face, I saw her eyes tight shut but tears beginning to squeeze out from under their lids. As I looked at her now visibly trembling hand, the new mark seemed deeper etched into the flesh, just below the first one that now was showing signs of the deep bruising that would build up over the next few minutes. But the blows already delivered were of little interest to me. The girl had to be chastened, and that I would do to the best of my ability.
The next stroke drove a cry from the young woman’s lips as it strike home just below the previous two. Now her whole body seemed to shake, as sobs wracked her and fresh tears fell from under swelling lids. I lowered the cane and, maybe for a moment, Charlotte must have thought her punishment was over.
“I do not want you using this correction as an excuse for poor handwriting. So the rest of it will be delivered on your left hand. Change hands, girl. NOW!”
For a moment I thought she was going to beg for mercy or forgiveness. But, as a creature of her time, just as I had been a child of mine, we both knew that such pleas would have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed they would have only served to increase the duration and intensify of her punishment. So, though she sobbed quietly to herself as she ‘changed hands’ to grip left wrist with right hand, a hand on fire from the strokes already delivered, she said nothing as I walked round to stand to her left, ready to recommence her punishment.
Having assured myself that my aim was accurate and my skill unimpaired by not having been forced to correct a pupil for some time, I lifted the rod so as to start the real meat of the young woman’s punishment. So far I had not employed all my skill and strength, as I did not wish Charlotte’s writing hand to be hurt more than superficially. But now I must do my duty properly, so as to ensure that the young lady was never tempted to be devious or untrustworthy again. I raised the cane higher than before, rose slightly on my toes and brought it screaming down to impact across the open palm. This time she did indeed howl, as the pain of the blow swept up her arm and through her whole being in a single instant of time.
Those ladies who read this sad tale, and who have been the recipients of such a method of correction, will doubtless be wincing at the memory of their own pain when they too were hand whipped. But no such thoughts passed through my mind as I raised the rod again, shutting out the sound of the young woman’s moans that now seemed continuous. I was not paid to be merciful or sympathetic; my task was to teach the girl to be better behaved in future, to be more open and docile. I might have suffered in just such a matter when I was her age, but now I had to play the governess and follow the traditions and practice of my day and age.
I balanced momentarily on the balls of my feet, rod raised high, and then brought it down for the second time across the palm of Charlotte’s shaking hand. This time, as the blow struck home, the young woman had every right to scream. For the stroke had landed just where I had aimed it – on top of the previous one.
I stood back to allow Charlotte a moment or two to recover, for she had curled up, bent at the waist, her hands sunk into the material of her garments, as though seeking shelter there.
“Stand straight, girl,” I said after I thought she had enough time to compose herself slightly. “Hand out properly, and NO moving after the next blow. Or you will receive bonus strokes for failing to hold your position. We still have a long way to go before you have learnt your lesson, and I think neither of us would wish the requisite number of strokes to be increased further.
Sobbing, the girl straightened up and stretched her left hand out in front of her, her other gripping her wrist. She moaned as tears slid down her cheeks. But she said nothing. Like myself and thousands of similarly brought-up young women, she knew she had no alternative other than to receive her punishment, regardless of what it might cost her. I smiled at her stoicism and adjusted my own stance so as to ensure the next, and the next and the next blows fell exactly where I wished them to land.
A Footnote Ladies of good breeding and education from across the Atlantic will doubtless think that I gave the wrong answer to the first question of the test which I set for my charges. Might I most humbly point out to them that certain measurements differ in their United States of America to those traditional Imperial measures used in this fair land ruled by our Sovereign, Queen Victoria. I believe that the measures for such things as a tablespoon or even a gallon of liquid is, in America, but four-fifths of the same nominal amounts used in Her Majesty’s British Empire.
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Seven
As always, the schoolroom correction took longer than expected, and the routine was disturbed. But the young woman who had tried to fool me learnt a very salutary lesson that icy morning. She may have only received three strokes across her right hand, but her left would be useless to her for a day or two and painful for perhaps a whole week. For she received six strokes with that whippy rod, the final blow planted diagonally across its predecessors. The shriek that this most agonising of cuts drove from between her clenched teeth even made me shudder.
It was little surprise that she was still sobbing quietly to herself an hour later when the nursery maid came to collect poor Charlotte and her younger sister. After knocking and entering the room, I gestured for the maid to come over to the dais.
“I have been forced to correct Miss Charlotte,” I informed her. “Just across the hands but painful enough, I warrant. I trust you will give her assistance in dressing, even in eating, if she needs it.”
“If she needs, it, Ma’am,” the maid muttered in reply.
“Oh yes, and what time will the girls be ready to go outside for their exercise?”
“They will be at the East Wing door at half past one sharp, Ma’am.” The maid paused for a moment and then continued. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, Ma’am. But if I were you, I’d be down there a little before that time. It would be in your interest, Ma’am.”
“In my interest?” I asked. But I was too late. The maid had turned away and was signalling the girls to leave their desks. This they did with their usual low curtseys before following the maid from the room. Both walked out with shoulders slumped as though defeated, and I noted how tears of sympathy for her sister still stained the younger girl’s flushed cheeks.
Still puzzled over the nursery maid’s cryptic remark, I had found no answer to its dilemma by the time the older maid came in with my luncheon. As usual I ate it at my desk, remembering to finished every last crump so that Miss Harding might have no cause to seek to correct me again. My meal over, I glanced at the clock, seeing that I had plenty of time before I needed to prepare for our adventure outside the house. For it seemed like an adventure to me. For I had seen so little of Fairacres since my arrival and to be able to view more of the house and its widespread grounds would indeed be a treat for me. So it was that, feeling more happy than at any time since my arrival, I set to preparing further lessons for my charges.
At ten past the hour of one o’clock, I tidied my desk and returned to my room. Unbuttoning my cape and hanging it up, I glanced across at the window. Ice still remained on its glass. This I scraped away so I could see that the ground below was still white with overnight frost. Clearly daytime had failed to increase the temperature out of doors, the sun absenting itself behind a heavy veil of cloud. It would be cold out there, I thought as I walked to my wardrobe to ready myself for the afternoon’s expedition in the grounds.
I first found a pair of heavy knit gloves and placed them on the wash stand, ready to put on, before I took the ‘uniform’ bonnet from its shelf. Like all my clothes it was made of drab grey material and, as I inspected it, I was surprised at its weight. Doubtless its frame work was of wood which would account for its weight. Such a mode of bonnet making was cheaper than the more usual stretching of fabric over a woven reed or even plaited straw framework where wood was only used sparingly to keep the bonnet’s weight down to a minimum. But, looking at the close fitting example of some amateur milliner’s art, I realised I could barely expect a three guineas hat to be part of my uniform.
Placing the bonnet next to my gloves, I dragged the cloak I had been given from its place behind the door. It had been hung there by the maid when we had together brought my uniform clothes to my room during my first day at Fairacres. So I was not prepared for the garment’s weight. I staggered back a pace or so and knew that wearing this cloak was going to be a tiring business. For a moment I was tempted to leave it in my room and to go outdoor wearing one of my capes. But some warning voice told me this would not be advisable and so, with some reluctance, I threw the massive folds of the garment round my shoulders, staggering again as they settled in place, the cloak’s vast envelope draping itself about me.
A few minutes later I was making my way down to the door that stood on the ground floor of the East Wing in which the schoolroom and my own chamber were situated. I had fastened the cloak at its collar, the bonnet now upon my head, and my gloves tucked into the dresses pocket. Although the weight of the cloak was far from pleasant and its massive folds swirled and surged about me as I carefully walked downstairs, I was still reasonably happy about going out doors. It was true that the bonnet’s projecting sides blinkered me severely and that its wooden frame weighed heavily upon my head. But I pushed these inconveniences aside as I stepped from the final stair and turned towards the door that would lead into the gardens. As I did so, a black shape loomed up in front of me and my heart, recently so light, grew instantly heavy. For the tall figure of Miss Harding stood by the doorway.
“Good afternoon, Miss Poyser,” she said in spectral tones. “You are taking your charges for a walk, I am informed.”
Terror of the woman made me curtsey to her, an act of submission that no governess should perform towards a mere housekeeper. But I had not seen her since she had flogged me so brutally, and I was still terrified of the unbridled power she so obviously enjoyed within the walls of Fairacres.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I whispered as I rose to my feet, again cursing myself for using the honorific title of “Ma’am” when addressing her. “Your bro…. I mean, Mr Harding gave his permission for them to get exercise outdoors on a regular basis.”
“That I fully realise,” the woman replied slowly as she stepped towards me, a thin hand snaking out to tweak on side of my cloak. “You realise you are incorrectly dressed, don’t you?”
Terror knotted my stomach. ‘Oh Merciful Lord, let me not fall foul of this woman again,’ I pray silently to myself as her other hand reached out to adjust the dense fall of my cloak. Then, to my surprise she stepped back to observe me from a yard or more distance.
“Normally, Miss Poyser,” she said after a long moment of silence, “the nursery maid takes the girls out for their walks. But I gather that you wish to accompany them. That is correct?”
“Very well, as my brother has no objections, you may walk with the girls, but……. There are certain conditions which must be enforced when you leave the house. You are young, perhaps frivolous, and yet to prove yourself trustworthy. So, as men sometimes work in the gardens, we will have to take certain precautions to ensure that you behave in a manner than is compatible with the high standards demanded in this household.”
“Yes, Miss Poyser; precautions. Now kindly put these on.” From a bag that she carried she produced a pair of leather mittens. Not of the type I had been wearing earlier, but ones where the fingers were sewn into a single pocket, only the thumb being separate.
For a moment I was about to protest that I had my own, perfectly adequate, uniform gloves. But one look at Miss Harding’s thinly drawn lips was enough to persuade to hold my peace. I took one of the mitts from her and forced it onto my hand. Its leather was hard against my flesh and, as I pulled it on, I discovered that it was almost inflexible, making it impossible to curl my hand. Once inside the covering, my fingers were rendered useless, even the thumb being granted no movement, thanks to the solidity and density of the leather than enclosed it.
Clearly Miss Harding was aware of the mittens qualities, for she held out the second one, indicating that I was to insert my right hand into its interior. This I did with something of a struggle until it was fully imprisoned in the leather. The woman before me however did not release my newly enveloped hand. Instead she tightened the strapping that passed about the glove at wrist level. Drawing it in and buckling it in place so there was no chance of my ever removing it on my own, she swiftly ensured that I was genuinely helpless. The right gloved locked in place, she repeated her work, this time with my left glove. But she had not completed her work. Indeed she had barely begun.
Next she produced a wide belt and, pushing aside my cloak’s heavy folds, she buckled it about my waist. Then she took my left hand and somehow strapped it to the belt at the right side of my body. Then she did the same with my right hand, again strapping its wrist down to the belt so that my arms were crossed before me and pinned hard down against the bodice of my dress. It was uncomfortable but that did not concern me; what worried me was why Miss Harding was immobilising me like this.
“Ma’am, restrained like this I won’t be able to really do anything if…………..”
“Restrained like that you will have to behave!” The woman snapped out the words as she proceeded to buttoned the massive walls of my cloak about me, until I was enveloped within its mass from chin to floor.
Having checked that the garment was totally sealed shut, she retrieved yet another item from her bag. This time it was a three inch deep strip of some canvas-like material. To my surprise she passed this round my head and then drew it tight across my mouth. As I parted my lips to protest, she tied the two ends of the tough material together, the broad knot slipping past my teeth and into my mouth. Gagging on the foul-tasting material, I tried to redouble my protests but the sounds that did emerged past the knot was garbled and indistinct.
Ignoring my distress, the woman produced another strip of the same material and this again she passed round my head below my bonnet at the back. Again she knotted it at the front so that the new strip forced the original knot deeper into my mouth, dampening the sounds I made even further.
The hard faced woman, a slight smile playing on her thin lips, looked at me with something approaching satisfaction.
“There are house rules here, my girl, that have to do with unmarried young women,” she said, her face only inches from mine. “We expect such young women to be chaste and modest at all times and most definitely to behave themselves when away from their quarters. Your charges recognise that, and they accept that they must be silenced and masked out of doors. As yet we have not yet received the walking mask and proper gag which are being made for you, but I think the present arrangement will do until we get them. After all, we could not expect the girls to so docilely accept their own restraints if they saw that their unmarried and rather pretty governess is allowed out of doors any less severely restrained than they are.”
She reached forward and tightened the outer canvas strap, forcing the inner knot yet deeper into my mouth and making me again gag on its hard mass.
“Maids and their ilk,” she went on, “are of course of too low a class to be effected by these rules. So the nursery maid will be in charge of your walk. You WILL obey her whenever you go outdoors for exercise. If you do not, you will doubtless find yourself making renewed acquaintance with the laundry room and the ironing table. If you really do wish me to be forced to correct you again, just be less than instantly and utterly obedient to the nursery maid when you are out of doors.”
I saw her look up and listen for a second. Then she began to raise my hood, resting it on my head so that I could feel its weight pressing down.
“Your walking companions have arrived.” She announced.
Through tear streaked eyes I watched as the nursery maid led two heavily cloaked figures past me. They seemed to glide slowly past, each with their deeply hooded heads bowed low so they could only see the floor at the hems of their outer garments. There was no doubting that the anonymous figures were those of the sisters, the leader being the inch or two taller than the second, just as Charlotte was a trifle taller than Caroline. The silence of the hallway was broken by the sound of shuffling feet and the swish of the hems of their massive cloaks as their dragged across the flag stones of the floor.
“They are a trifle more comprehensively secured than you, Miss Poyser. Each wears a strait-cape reaching from chin to knee and, of course, they are hobbled as well. I doubt if the dear girls are not going to run away from here when kept thus restrained.” The steely smile was back as the woman came as near to being amused as I was ever to see her. But it soon flickered and died. When she spoke next, the cold impassivity of tone had returned.
“Johnson, let Miss Poyser see one of the girls’ masks. Miss Charlotte’s, I think.”
The maid, who had halted her little train just in front of where I stood, stepped forward to stand in front of the taller figure. She reached in under the gable of the massive hood, unseen fingers seeking out the ties that held the hood in place. Using experience and feel rather than sight, she undid the strings and pushed back the great hood.
“Effective, I think,” Miss Hading said as I stared in shocked surprise at my charge. Not that I could have told who she was. For the whole of her head and face was locked away inside the stiff carapace of a helmet-like leather mask. Laced down the back and, as I was to learn later, padlocked shut behind the wearer, the dense walls of the rigid mask utterly eradicated all the girl’s features. Even her nose was only discernible by a slight rise in the front, with two small brass bound holes situated under what must be the hapless Arabella’s nostrils. Even her eyes were hidden behind narrow slits which, again I was to learn in due course, were in turn covered internally by two layer of black-dyed muslin.
“We have seen enough, I think, Hood the girl, please, Johnson.” Miss Harding turned to me as the nursery maid began to re-hood Arabella, hiding away from sight the hideous mask that rendered her totally anonymous. “That excellent mask also has an internal silencing device; one which ensure the girl’s complete silence. Oh yes, as yours will in due course. So I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you about it. You’ll find out all about that gag soon enough.”
She reached out and dragged my hood forward and then down so that I was forced to lower my head to see out of its tunnel which now pointed to the flagstones at my feet. I could feel the woman’s hard figures reaching inside the hood’s vast cavern until she found the tie strings which she knotted brutally tightly under my chin. Now the hood could not be shifted away from its position even by a gale.
Hands withdrawn, she adjusted the material, further blinkering me and cutting down my fields of vision until all I could see was the floor in front of me. Just at the edge of my limited of sight, I caught a glimpse the lower few inches of a dark cloak. I realised that it must be the younger sister’s, for she had been standing behind Charlotte.
“Pay attention, Miss Poyser,” My attention was drawn by the extremely muffled sound of Miss Harding’s icy voice. Although she could have only been standing a foot or so from me, I could barely hear her words, thanks to the density of the hood’s fabrics. “I am sure you can see Caroline standing in front of you. Well, for the time you are outdoors, you will follow her. Stay close or you’ll lose her and then the nursery maid will be forced to report you to me. And I don’t think you’ll enjoy the consequences if she does. Oh, there is one last thing.”
There was a pause and then, appearing in my incredible limited field of vision, was the sight of the nursery maid, ready attired in an outdoor coat. She had something in her hands but I could not see it as she dropped to her knees facing me. The weighted hem of my cloak and my skirts were lifted and then I felt something passing round the ankle of my left hand bootee. The same pressure was exerted and remained round the right one before the woman rose and disappeared from my sight.
“You are now hobbled like your charges, Miss Poyser. But I have been kind because you may not be used to such restraints, whereas they are. So I have allowed you a whole twelve inches of leeway. Enjoy it, because it will soon become less generous. One final thing. You told my brother than you felt ninety minutes was an ideal length of time for exercise. I must applaud you, because I know that your predecessors found forty five minutes a great strain, and an hour of walking under restraints to be more than she could bear. Indeed that was one of the main reasons why she left here without pay and without references. But I am sure you are of far more resolute character than she was. Now that is enough chatter. Enjoy your walk, Miss Poyser. It is just the first of many, I am certain.”
I howled soundlessly into my makeshift gag. But then I heard the nursery maid say something and watched as the hem of Caroline’s cloak move forward, sliding across the floor away from me. I stepped forward to follow, and nearly fell as the tether tied between my ankles brought me up short. I staggered for a moment or two, then regained my balance and hurried after the now disappeared cloak hem. Fortunately my desperate shuffling and the fact I facing the correct direction to start with meant that I managed to catch up with my marker. I was at the back of the three female queue, now as anonymous as my charges and about to start what I already knew was to be a purgatorial exercise session.
Tears nearly blinded me as I shuffled through the now open doorway that led outside as we set off on what was to be a terrible and unforgettable experience for me.
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Eight
Stepping outside the house for the first time since arriving at Fairacres, I felt none of the joy I had expected to accompany such an occasion. In fact the reverse was true. Unable to see anything other than a few feet in front of the dragging hem of my cloak, the view of the gardens and the estate was hidden to my eyes by the manner in which the giant hood blinkered me, the tears welling up in my eyes not helping my vision either. In fact, as I stumbled over the doorstep and moved outside the house, all I could see was the bottom of Caroline’s cloak and the gravel path way along which we walked.
As I shuffled along in my pupil’s wake, I tried to make sense of what was happening to me. It seemed ridiculous that I should have to be so formidable concealed outdoors, even to the extent of having my voice silenced. Yet Miss Harding made it plain that this would be the case in future, and that I would be expected to take this dreadful form of exercise with my charges whenever they went outdoors. And Miss Hassack? Was it true that she had been subjected to the same horrors and had left because of them? And my pupils: why were they so hideously masked and hidden away outside the house, even to the extent of being horribly silenced and close hobbled? I had never heard of young women being so formidably kept under rigid control and to be so totally hidden from the sight of ‘outsiders’. What was the reason for these seemingly excessive precautions?
The unanswered questions reverberated round my mind, momentarily making me forget what I was doing and where I was. But that was soon to be brought back to me with startling clarity. I had been vaguely conscious that the path on which we walked veered slightly to the right, round towards the back of the house, I assumed. I had never seen what lay to the rear of Fairacres’ vast building as the trees lining the drive had shielded that view when I had arrived in the carriage and the nursery wing faced East, allowing no view behind the house. But, as I laboured on, taking tiny paces, weighed down by my monstrous coverings, I was little concerned as to what lay unseen ahead of me. But I should have been concerned; extremely concerned.
Following the younger sister’s cloak, I noticed that the path along which we now walked was no longer of neatly raked gravel but was made of coarser stone. It was more irregular and I was glad that my laced-up boots reached above my ankles, for it would have been easy to have turned one on that rough surface. My eyes focussed on the ground in front of me, I concentrated on where I was walking, trying to avoid the larger stones that rolled out from under the hem of Caroline’s cloak or over which it dragged. So brutally hobbled it was no possible to avoid all such objects but at least the tunnel of my hood down which I peered allowed me to see them before I might step on their rough edges.
I had just avoided a viciously sharp flint as I slowly moved along the broken path when I realised that walking was becoming more difficult. Close hobbled, my petticoats and weighty skirts also fettering each pace I took, walking had been a struggle from the first step I took outside the house. But now it seemed more onerous to move forward at all. For a moment or two I genuinely could not understand why this should be. Then I realised that we must be walking uphill, and that the gradient of the slope was becoming more and more severe with each pace. Breath hissed through my nostrils and I tried to suck extra air round the brutal makeshift gag blocking my mouth. But that awful silencer was becoming more effective the longer in place. The knot was now soaked with my saliva and seemed to have grown to totally fill my mouth so that, if I breathed through it, all I inhaled was a miserable stream of saliva-filled air that burnt my lungs.
My legs soon began to ache from the unaccustomed exercise. I considered myself to be a fit young woman in an age where such qualities were not commonly thought of as being of any merit. I was also someone who would happily walk all day long, but not close hobbled and burdened by such a monstrous weight of clothing. Perspiration started to dampen my underclothing, for the chill air came nowhere near to penetrating the layer upon layer of dense materials that cocooned by whole body. Even the air trapped inside the long cavern of my hood seemed hot, warmed and made stale by my own rapid breathing. Sweat trickled down from under my bonnet, stinging my eyes and making me blink as I struggled to follow the cloak that was my only guide in my solitary world of misery.
I moaned into my gag, sure I could not continue any longer, so great was now the steepness of the hill we climbed, and so exhausted was my body and spirit. But then, just as I reached the end of my reserves of strength, the ground levelled off under my feet and, perhaps a dozen tiny paces further on, began to slope gently downhill. I said a silent prayer of thanks and carried on, my heart lighter, even if my body cried out for me to stop and give it time to recover from that brutal climb.
I had lost all track of time as I had climbed that dreadful hill. All I knew was that it seemed an eternity and now we were going downhill, presumably back to the house and the end of our walk. With aching limbs, I walked on, each step an effort, legs aching horribly and my head pounding from the heat and lack of fresh air. To take my mind away from my miserable state, I again tried to work out why the girls were treated in this cruel manner. It was plain from the awful mask I had seen locked down over Charlotte’s head and face, and the wear evident on it, that this was no newly introduced part of their lives. That mask had been used many times and so I had to believe that the sisters had been kept hidden away for a long time. Perhaps even years. But why? They seemed harmless enough, docile and obedient, and certainly two girls who had so far revealed to me no sign of being troublemakers. Then why were they kept so close? They had nowhere or no-one to run to that I knew of. After all, they were orphans being looked after by their nearest and, as far as I knew, only close relatives.
I was still puzzling over these questions when I was aware that we were walking on level ground again. ‘We’ll be back indoors soon,’ I told myself. I trudged on with tiny paces, feeling that I had survived yet another of Miss Harding’s strange assaults on my dignity and self-respect. Then I stumbled slightly. Blinking sweat from my eyes, I looked down the close tunnel of my hood. To my horror, I saw I was walking on a path made of broken stone, sharp edged flints peppering its surface. I howled silently into my gag as I realised that, beneath my shuffling feet, the ground was rising again. As it grew ever steeper, I felt my mind go blank as my stomach knotted with all-consuming fear. Pain mounted again, the air inside my hood grew ever hotter and less usable, as I climbed ever upwards, following the dark hem of Caroline’s cloak. I sunk into my personal hell as I laboured pace by tiny pace up that awful hill.
How I survived that afternoon, I cannot tell. Life had made me unwilling to give in to any set-back, even when continuing might seem like purgatory. So I walked on, blinded by sweat, roasted alive inside the carapace of my coverings and weighed down by their mass. The third and fourth time we climbed that hill I felt as though I was going to faint. But somehow my legs kept moving and my body remained upright. On and on we trudged until I lost track of where I was, even who I was. I think I would have continued walking had I not tripped over the step leading into the hallway, and had stumbled forward to stop just behind the cloaked figure I had been following for seemingly all my life. I stood there, head swimming and lungs burning, probably swaying and barely able to stand. Only when I grew aware that the sisters had been led away and someone was undoing the tapes that held my hood in place, did I slowly start coming to my senses.
“Enjoy your walk, my dear?”
I blinked in the sudden light as the massive hood was pushed back. In front of me stood Miss Harding, her lips thin but smiling. She reached forward and began untying the canvas strips that served as my gag. When the knot of the inner one had been undone and the saturated material dropped to the floor, I ran a dry tongue round inside my bruised mouth.
“I am leaving,” I whispered through parched lips.
“Leaving?” The woman standing in front of me, hands on her hips, smiled wider at my statement. “You intending leaving here? Now?”
“Yes,” I said, not sure how I had gained the courage to speak so openly to the woman who I had come to fear so much. “I am leaving now. Even if I walk out naked.”
Miss Harding took a pace back, looking at me with eyes that seemed black in the dying light of the day.
“Like that?” She asked, gesturing to the cloak still tight buttoned about me. “With your hands tethered. And hobbled?”
“No.” I stuttered my courage running out rapidly. “Wearing my own clothes. If you would please let me have them. I have a little money and can afford to ride back to London.”
“Oh, a lady of wealth, are you?” Miss Harding laughed at my words; a harsh cackling laugh. “Hiring a carriage? Oh, that will impress the servants!”
Abruptly, as though cut off with a sharp knife, the laughter ceased and the lips grew thin and straight once more. My courage spent, I dropped my eyes, afraid to look at the frightful woman. I stood in silence as she moved away from me and I heard a key turn in an unseen locked. Then she was back before me. With claw-like hands, she took my shoulders, wheeled me round and pushed me across the hallway. Suddenly I realised she was guiding me into a dark room as, after a final push, I stumbled forward to come in painful contact with a wall. Behind me, a door slammed shut, leaving me in total darkness. I cried out but it was too late.
I discovered that I was in some sort of tiny alcove, no bigger than a cupboard, presumably set into the house’s immensely thick outer walls. From the musty smell it could not have been used for a long time; in fact I sensed rather than felt cobwebs brushing against my face. I stood in the darkness, wondering what I could do before despair descended on me like a black cloud and, yet again, I wept. Hands still strapped down to my waist belt and the dense walls of my cloak sealed about me, I was totally helpless; all I could do was to stand on exhausted legs, facing the back of the alcove, and pray that I would not be forgotten.
I am not certain how long I remained in that tiny prison but, perhaps after half an hour, I heard a key being inserted in the lock behind me, and then the door was opened, flooding the interior with light. Roughly I was dragged out into the small hallway where I found myself facing Miss Harding, now accompanied by the nursery maid and another woman who was as hard-faced as my main tormentor.
“Listen to me, girl and do NOT speak! Understand?” I tried to nod but my choking collar allowed me to only move my head fractionally. It seemed enough for Miss Harding who continued in harsh tones that sent shivers of fear through my over-heated body. “You threatened me just now. Threatening to run away. Well, girl, that is NOT going to happen. You are going to remain here; like it or not.”
“BE QUIET!” The woman roared. “That is your last warning. One more word from you and we will go straight to the laundry room. Only this time you will receive a whipping which will make your first one seem like a mere caress. You understand, girl?”
“Good. Now, you must get in into that simple brain of yours that you are NOT leaving here. It is necessary that the children have a governess. Why is of no concern to you. But it would be very inconvenient for us were you to leave. In fact you will not leave.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but one look into Miss Harding’s cold eyes was more than enough to make me to close it again.
“But Mr Harding and I agree that the girls do not really need tutoring any longer. They must know enough after so many years in the schoolroom. So you, Miss Poyser, will stay here as governess but without any real duties, as I am sure you’ll be glad to hear. Imagine that; being paid for doing nothing.”
The woman gave another of her tight lipped smiles. But it soon faded.
“Unemployed but paid. Well, that is a dangerous state of affairs. Especially as you have already threatened to leave here. So we have decided that you must be made to stay. Whether that is your wish or not.” Miss Harding paused and turned slightly to gesture towards the new woman who stood by her side. “This is Grant. She has been here for many years and is someone whom Mr Harding and I trust absolutely. She will be responsible for making sure you remain here. When necessary, such as now, she will be assisted by the nursery maid, Jenks, as you will remain in your current quarters which of course is in the nursery wing, and that is under Jenks; control.”
She looked at the maid who blushed slightly, doubtless unused to such flattery.
“You, Miss Poyser, will co-operate with her and Grant. You will treat their orders as though they came from my brother. AND they will report to me regularly. If their reports tell of your being less than totally co-operative, I will have you brought down to the laundry room. And even you, girl, know what will happen then.”
With this final warning, she turned to the woman who stood slightly behind her and to one side.
“Take her up to her room now. And remember what I said. NO mistakes.” She gestured the women forward but, as they approached me, she held up her hand.
“One final thing. Miss Poyser, you will not speak or utter a sound from now on. If you do, you will be forcibly silenced. And in a far less mild manner than you were whilst exercising just now. You will have no further warnings. Just a single word, a solitary syllable, and you will have your mouth plugged up so cruelly that you will wish that The Maker had never granted you the power of speech..”
She gestured to the woman to carry on with their task. Moments later, my hobbles at last removed, I was being bundled upstairs towards the nursery area and my room, the two women forcing me to climb ever upwards towards a fate which was as yet unknown to me. I desperately wanted to plead with them, to try to persuade them to let me go, to help me escape this nightmare. But Miss Harding’s words echoed round my brain, filling me with terror and ensuring that I remained mute.
At last I was pushed into my chamber, my legs burning from climbing the stairs at a time when they could barely hold me upright.
“On the bed. Face down.”
It was Grant who spoke, her voice as harsh as Miss Harding’s, her granite face as hard as her mistresses.
I looked at both women, fear and need battling within me. In the end fear won and I said nothing, moving slowly to the bed. With my wrists strapped tight down to the belt about my waist, and so heavily encumbered by my cloak, even lying down was problematical. In the end rough hands grabbed me, forcing me down and forward, pulling up my legs and swivelling me until I lay on my stomach on the hard bed. I felt hands grab my ankles and they were fastened tightly together. Then, from the downward pressure on this new binding, I must have had my feet tied to the bed end. Finally unseen hands pulled up the cloak’s great hood, dropping it so that its massive folds covered my head and face, plunging me into darkness.
Lying there, unable to see what was happening about me, I heard the woman moving round the room. This was followed by the sound of furniture being shifted, the two occasionally speaking in low tones so that I could not hear what they said. For the thick drapery of the hood muffled sounds as well as ensuring that I was struggling for breath in the hood dark interior. In some ways, I was less unhappy than I had been recently. At least I could rest my weary body, slowly recovering my strength as I lay there on my stomach, ignored by the two unseen women. It was true that it was airless under my hood and I was still grossly over-dressed. But I was being left alone and even that seemed like a mercy after the hideous experiences of the last hours. I even tried to ease my position slightly but, with my hands shackled underneath my body, there was no way in which I could make myself more comfortable. But I was used to discomfort, and such minor aches and pains did not overly trouble me.
What did however worry me intensely was just what was to become of me. A paid but yet unemployed governess? Such a creature could not exist. It was impossible that anyone would pay me wages for doing nothing. But yet that was what Miss Harding had told me would happen. And she was a woman of her word, as I knew to my bitter cost. Over and over in my mind I turned this conundrum until I suddenly became aware that the woman must have left. For the room was silent, the dimly heard sounds of their activities had ceased and I was alone once more. Carefully I tested my bonds. But my ankles were well secured and my wrists cruelly immobilised. I might be able to wriggle around slightly.. But what good would that do, except to annoy my captors? So I lay still, as fatigue and mental turmoil gradually overcame me.
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Nine
Incredible though it may seem, I must have fallen asleep as I lay on my stomach on my bed, shackled and helpless, not knowing what terrors lay in store for me. It does seem almost impossible but I know I must have gained some rest from my living nightmare, as I remember jerking awake as an unseen key was turned in the unseen lock of the door. For a brief moment I fought against my bonds, mindless fear overwhelming me. But swift recall of my predicament made me force my body to relax, knowing that any struggles would be in vain and might even anger my tormentors.
Still covered by the cloak’s giant folds, I lay still, listening as the door was closed before I could hear footsteps approaching across the wooden floor to stop by my side.
“I hope you remember everything that Miss Harding told you, miss.” The voice was that of the nursery maid. Her tone was neutral but I thought I could detect a note of concern in her words. “I have to report you if you speak or do anything except what you’re told to do. Sorry, miss, but them’s my orders. I can’t help ’em.”
As she was speaking she must have reached down and pulled back the dense drapery of the hood that covered my head and face. For the first time for what seemed like an eternity, light hit my eyes, making me close them until used to the luminescence given out by the candle which the young woman held in her left hand. I blinked, growing used to the light and, as my head was turned to face away from the wall against which the bed rested, I was able to see the maid and, beyond her, the room.
She must have seen my eyes widen as I saw how barren the room now was.
“Sorry, miss, we were told to clear this chamber. Just left you the bed, wash-stand and a chair. That’s all, but it’s how Miss Harding told us to do it.” She moved out of my line of vision and I felt her untying my ankles a moment or two later. “Grant will be here soon with your supper, miss. Take care of her, miss. She is Miss Harding’s favourite.”
Barely had she finished speaking than I heard the door open. I lay still as the older maid came into sight, carrying a tray that she then put down on the floor by the bed. Her tone when she spoke was brusque and she did not bother to hide the way in which she clearly despised me.
“Sit up,” she barked.
Stiff and cramped, my legs still weak from that awful exercise period, spine aching dully, my wrists were strapped to the wide belt around my waist, I had difficulty levering myself round and then up to sit on the edge of the bed. Neither maid sought to help me, the elder one sneering at my efforts.
“Eat your food,” she said as soon as I was perched on the bed side.
I opened my mouth to protest that such action would be impossible as long as my hands were immobilised. But I remembered Miss Harding’s dire warnings, and I limited myself to waving my still mitten-encased hands so as to indicate my predicament.
“Having problems, are you?” Grant asked with heavy irony. Then she turned to the younger maid. “Unfasten her, Jenks. We can’t have her complaining she’s being starved, can we?”
Five minutes later, hands at last free of the crushing bondage of the heavy leather mitts and no longer with my wrists strapped down to the broad belt still circling my waist, I was chewing at the dry bread and stale cheese which, together with a mug of water, comprised my supper. The maids, my jailors, once then had seen that I was being meekly compliant to their commands, stood talking, barely bothering to glance in my direction, so certain were they that escape for me would be impossible.
“I’m surprised that Miss Harding hasn’t place her under the same duress as your two girls,” Grant said to the nursery maid. “Strikes me that they are kept nice and safe in their rooms.”
“Very safe,” replied the younger woman. “Locked in their orphan boxes they can’t trouble no-one. Them boxes makes me life easy. And the other things, of course.”
“Other things? I haven’t been up here lately, you know. What other things have you got now?”
“Oh, things like hoods and shackles. Mr Harding got them when Miss Hassacks left. He said the older one was grown up and needed watching more than when Hassacks was here. He told me to use them of her, but not the younger one yet. Not if she behaved anyway.”
I listened to this conversation, appalled at what I was learning as I ate my frugal meal.
“You got any spare bits and pieces? We could use them on this thing.”
Eyes lowered, chewing my dry bread, I did not see Grant gesture in my direction, but it was plain who she was talking about.
“Yes, I suppose so. But Miss Harding didn’t say anything about them.”
“Leave her to me, Jenks. I am sure she’ll be pleased if we make sure this one is kept nice and snug. Proper shackles will do better than what we’ve got here. Why don’t you pop along and get a selection? Oh yes, and bring one of the girls’ hoods. They sound interesting.”
That night I slept little. It was true that I had been allowed to get out of my clothes and sweat soaked undergarments, and that I had been permitted to wash in cold water and to straighten my tangled hair. But I had been forced to undergo the terrible humiliation of squatting over the chamber pot as my two tormentors looked on. I had tried to shut my ears to their ribald comments then, and to their equally cruel remarks as they made me strip off before fitting me in a clean corset and night gown.
I had remained silent as Grant had tugged so hard at the corset’s crutch strapping that she had almost pulled me off my feet. I had held my peace as my wrists were taken behind my back and fastened inside iron shackles joined by a short rod which, in turn, was attached by a rigid steel bar ti the heavy shackles locked about my ankles. So close were the ankle irons that walking was impossible and the maids were forced to half drag, half carry me across the room before lying me down on my back on the bed.
“She won’t get much rest like that,” the younger maid commented, looking down at me as I lay on my arms, the solid metalwork of my shackles underneath my body. “Must be uncomfortable like that.”
“We weren’t sent her to make her comfortable,” Grant retorted. “Did you bring the hood with you?”
“Oh, I forgot. Do you think we really need to use it?”
“Of course we do. Have to make sure that little Miss Perfect here is all snug and safe for the night, don’t we. Gone on, run and fetch it.”
I lay on my back, my body locked into immobility by the steel and iron of my restraints, waiting for the older woman to say something. But she remain silent until the other maid returned. In her hand was a device that I knew only too well from my time at school, although such things were rarely used even within an establishment as strict and severe as Mrs Hughers Academy for Young Ladies.
While it was carefully inspected by Grant, I was able to see it in her thin-fingered hands. Like the ‘tranquillity hood’ that terrified the pupils at Mrs Hughers, it appeared to be a leather bag about the size of a person’s head, with various items attached to it. Around the bag’s opening was a hinged circle of metal, a three inch deep ‘collar’ that would be locked about the wearer’s throat. At the back of the bag was a double line of reinforced eyelets, through which was loosely threaded a stout length of cord. At the base of this lacing was a pair of steel rings, and from one of them dangled a small brass padlock which, when shut, would be hidden away under the metal of the deep collar to which the leather was firmly attached.
I watched as the senior maid felt around within the bag’s interior. She smiled as her fingers came in contact with something there.
“Ah, so it has a nice silencer within its walls?”
“A big one too,” Jenks replied with a sly smile. “It certainly keeps Miss Charlotte extremely quiet. You could whip her and not know she was troubled by it all when she’s got that plug in her mouth.”
The elder maid smiled in turn and then came towards the bed.
“You’ll doubtless know what this is, Miss Governess,” she said, sneering down at me. I knew well enough. And I also knew well enough not to speak. I just nodded slightly. “Well, I think it’s time you were all snugly settled down for the night. You know what to do, don’t you? Get that silly mouth of yours wide wide open so we can put the plug in your mouth as we hood you. Open it, girl. NOW!”
The horror of the next few minutes does not bear repetition. Let it be said that the two maids forced that awful plug deep into my mouth as they drew the leather hood down over my head and face. Soon they had tightened the laces so the leather was drawn in crushingly tight about my head and face, the plug forced yet deeper into my mouth, doubly ensuring my silence. The small padlock was snapped shut, locking together the two rings at the base of the lacing, ensuring the pressure from the lacing could not lessen by even the tiniest amount.. And finally the collar was fully closed about my throat, half strangling me, to be secured shut by another but larger padlock.
Lost in the stifling darkness of the hood, I could barely hear the maids congratulating themselves on a job well down. But I felt blankets thrown over my body. I was at last ready for the night.
“Sleep well, girl!” I could only just hear the doubtless raised voice of the older woman. “You’ll be quite safe now. And to make sure no-one disturbs your sleep, we’ll be locking the door when we leave. Enjoy your rest, Miss Governess!”
Choking on the gag, I could not answer her taunts. But by then all I wanted to do was to survive within the airless hood, and to pray that morning and release came swiftly to me.
It did not. Instead I suffered endless minute by endless minute, seemingly suffocating inside the hood’s thick walls and choking on the plug as, at the same time, my body cried for relief from my grievously uncomfortable posture – relief that never came as the shackles ensured I could not ease my posture by even a fraction of an inch. No onlooker, seeing my motionless body and leather interred head, would have believed that I was suffering greatly. But I was, and to the very limits of my endurance and beyond.
“I trust you slept well.” Twelve hours after I had been put to bed, I sat on the solitary chair in my barren chamber, the steely eyes of Miss Harding staring down at me. “It seems that Grant and Jenks have been doing their job well enough. I am pleased. And I trust that you are too, Miss Poyser.”
Even had I wished to answer the woman, I would not have been able to do so. It was true that my bruised mouth was no longer filled with the hood’s terrible silencing plug, but I had a makeshift gag tied in place so as to make sure I did not break any of Miss Harding’s rules about not speaking.
Two hours earlier I had been freed from my living hell. Allowed to use the chamber pot and to wash and dress, I had eaten food identical to that which I had been given the previous evening. Clearly I was not to expect much variety in my diet as long as things remained so grim for me. My breakfast over, the stout leather belt was again fastened about my waist and my wrists strapped tight down against it, rendering me helpless once more. Then a strip of canvas, bolstered by a thick knot at its centre, was used as a means of ensuring my silence. This done, the long cape I had worn the previous day had then been draped round my shoulders prior to being buttoned close about me down to its floor length hem. Then, with no word of explanation, I had been strapped to the chair, my ankles again secured together, before the maids departed, leaving me in pre-dawn darkness.
I sat there, watching the dull interior of the room grow slowly lighter, as the black of night was replaced by the grey of a sleet-chilled day.
When Miss Harding eventually appeared, briskly rubbing her short-mittened hands together, I was almost glad to see her. It was true that the chair was not as uncomfortable as lying shackled on the bed for the night, nor was my gag as cruel as the great plug. In addition I could breath reasonably freely, and was no longer near suffocation as had been the case during the murderous hours locked within the walls of that terrible hood. But I was tense with fear and anticipation of more evil befalling me. At least, when Miss Harding appeared, I hoped that I was going to learn more of my fate. In that, I was not disappointed.
“You must be wondering what is happening, Miss Poyser,” Miss Harding began. “Your fall from grace, if we may call it that, has been sudden and unexpected., I’m sure. But neither Mr Harding nor myself wish you to be kept in total ignorance. Because we believe you to be a sensible young woman. Naive and silly, perhaps. But not without intelligence. So we have decided that you can be trusted with a few little secrets. Once you know them, of course you will never be able to leave here. We could not allow it. And anyway, I am sure you will be wise enough to see that, as soon as you have been told our little story, you will be implicated in it. You will become as much involved as anyone. And that fact should ensure your silence and total co-operation, unless you are extremely stupid.”
Suddenly she frowned and moved past me. A second or two later, I felt the canvas strap that served as a gag being pulled and then loosened. The knot was dragged from my mouth and, as I ran my tongue round parched lips, the makeshift gag was thrown on the floor, and Miss Harding appeared to stand before me again.
“We will not need that,” she said, gesturing at the discarded gag. “I am sure you are disciplined enough to remain mute unless I tell you to speak. The story I am going to tell you should fascinate you, my dear. And when it is told, perhaps I may allow you to speak. Perhaps not.”
The woman paused a moment and then, somewhat to my surprise, moved across the room to sit down on the edge of the bed, her back straight, her hands neatly folded on her lap.
“You know a little about Charlotte and Caroline. How they are orphans and have been adopted by our employers. What you will not know is the fact that they are extremely wealthy as well. Their late mother was a Miss Gordon, her father one of the founders of the Northern Railway. He died relatively young and she inherited his stock in the company. Then, when in turn she died, that very valuable asset passed on to her daughters, your charges, Charlotte and Caroline. So, Miss Poyser, we have two extremely wealthy young ladies living under this roof. Or they would be were it not for several other matters.”
She paused and looked at me, her eyes cold as is the falling snow outside.
“You never enquired about your new employers before you took this post, did you? A shame because you might have learnt of their extremely expensive tastes. Of their great house in London and of their equally elegant French residence. And Fairacres as well, all of which must cost a fortune to maintain and run. But I regret to say that your employers do not possess any great fortune. In fact he has been assiduously gambling away his inheritance for some years now. And her tastes have grown ever more expensive. So, when the girls came into their hands, they must have seemed like angels from heaven. Angels bearing gifts; gifts of railway stock.”
A harsh laugh cut through the freezing air and I shivered at its sound. Not because of the bitter cold, but from the sheer malice in Miss Harding’s chilling laugh.
“A less than straightforward lawyer was employed to help our employers slowly use some of the girls’ inheritance, and reliable staff was employed her to ensure that no-one knew where the children lived. Most people believe that they are still in India, looked after by some purely fictional aunt. That, my dear, is why we ensure that no-one sees their faces when they go outdoors. It is why they are kept under close duress, and it is why you are now our prisoner too. You see, we need you. We need you because our employers want the girls to have a proper governess. But, as they cannot be bothered to concern themselves as to how the girls are educated, it does not matter a jot whether they are given classes or taught anything. Providing a decent and respectable governess is employed here, that is all that the children’s guardians care about.”
Again she paused, but this time she rose from the bed like a gaunt black vulture. She walked across to where I sat and looked down at me.
“Miss Poyser, I will make things clear to you. You have two alternatives. You will either join us and freely share in the task of keeping the girls shut away from the world. In fact you will be another conspirator, and will be just as culpable of imprisoning the sisters and cheating them of their birthright as anyone else here. Or you may be a honest and god-fearing young woman, and refuse to join the rest of us. The choice is yours. But I must warn you, if you take the second option and stay in the ranks of the righteous, you will have to remain here. As a prisoner for as long as may be necessary. Which could be a very very long time, my dear. Perhaps for ever.”
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Ten
Pinioned to the chair, I felt my heart turn cold as Miss Harding spelt out her ultimatum. The story of how the sisters had been cheated of their inheritance had filled me with horror but now I had been told what alternatives awaited me, I felt terror welling up within me. I knew I could not stand idly by and watch two helpless young women being robbed of their birthright for every ounce of decency in me screamed out at that terrible injustice. Yet……………………. Yet I had seen enough of brother and sister Harding to know that neither bluffed and neither threatened without meaning all they said. If Miss Harding said that I would be kept prisoner along with the girls, that is what would happen, of that I felt certain. But………………….. But if I was a prisoner I could not assist the girls in any way. I would be as helpless as they were, and as powerless to free myself from the Hardings’ duress as they were.
“I see you are having problems making up your mind.” I looked up at the sound of Miss Harding’s voice and saw to my surprise that she was actually smiling. That it was the smile of a hen-stealing fox only served to make its presence all the more shocking. For her features were not ones made for smiling nor, I imagine, ones often creased by such an expression.
“Miss Poyser, I am going to make a suggestion.” The smile slowly turned into a death-s-head leer.
“Clearly your conscience is troubling you. Much as you might wish to join us and continue to work here as the young creatures’ governess, your scruples hold you back from allying yourself with us. I understand that. I too was troubled when first told of the scheme to keep the girls hidden away here. But then I came to see how I could benefit from such an arrangement.”
The gaunt woman turned and walked back to my bed where she sat down, again neatly arranging her skirts before continuing with her monologue.
“I saw the financial and other benefits that would accrue to me were I to join in with my brother and his employers. It did not take much thought before I agree to come here and also to find some suitable servants who could be trusted to keep their mouths shut and who would not overly mind what went on in this house.”
Again she paused, looking down at her fustian skirts before brushing off an imaginary speck of dust.
“Of course, we cannot offer you the same sort of financial inducements as we were initially offered,” she said, looking up at me again. “But you would continue to be paid your agreed salary. In due course, if your work and behaviour here remained excellent, I am sure that my brother would recommend you for an increase in wages. But it is not bribes we offer you, my dear Miss Poyser. No, that would not be possible under the present arrangements. Instead we would be offering you a most unpleasant existence were you to refuse to join us.”
She rose from the bed like a ill favoured crow and went to where the makeshift gag lay on the floor. Picking it up she came over to where I sat.
“Open you mouth please, Miss Poyser.”
Obdurately I kept my jaw closed. I was not going to let her gag me again. She hit me only once, a swinging backhand blow that knocked my head to one side and brought tears welling into my eyes.
“Open!” She barked. I hesitated a moment, not from bravery or stupid bravado, but because my brain was still reeling from the vicious blow. Then I saw Miss Harding raise her hand again and I opened my mouth; wide.
“Sensible girl,” she murmured as she secured the canvas strip in place, the knot filling my mouth. Then, when she had tied the material behind my head, she moved to stand in front of me, her eyes now so cold that I could not meet her gaze, dropping my own and looking down at the small patch of bare floorboards between us.
“That’s better. In fact you look rather sweet with a gag in your mouth. Now where was I? Ah yes, I remember. Well, Miss Poyser, as I cannot offer you bribes, I must offer you a taste of the future if you do not join us. I think you will find it an incentive to cast your lot in with us. What I propose is that we declare a schoolroom holiday for a short period of time. While the girls relax from your tutelage, you will be treated in the manner similar to the way in which you will live should you decide to join the aide of the angels. I think a week or so looking into that future will persuade you to join the ranks of Mammon.”
After the woman had left me on my own, still strapped to the chair, I had ample time to consider her words. They filled me with fear but I did not see how they could possibly dare to maltreat me too badly. It was true they could leave me locked in my grim little chamber. They might feed me minimal rations, even shackle me in some way. But I felt sure they would not risk harming me. Even the Hardings could not be that stupid or cruel. So, trying to control my natural fear, I sat on the chair and waited to see what would happened next.
They left me in that room for longer than I might have guessed but, when the door was unlocked and someone entered the room again, it was not Miss Harding. Instead it was her brother, now accompanied by a man I had not seen before. Standing well over six and a half foot in height, he was massively built with a beetling brow, and hands the size of navvies’ shovels. A pugilist’s nose sprawled down his face from between piggy little eyes that looked at me in such a lewd manner that I almost cried out in terror. I looked away from his awful face but not before I saw him lick his lips and smile to reveal yellowed and broken teeth.
“I gather that you have not yet made up your mind, Miss Poyser,” Harding said in his usual harsh tones. I am sorry to hear that, but I trust that a week or two downstairs will persuade you not to be so stubborn.”
He turned to his companion. “Untie her and take her downstairs. And DON’T harm her. Understand.”
“Yeah, Mr Hard’ng.” The giant’s voice was as shocking as his appearance but for a very different reason. He spoke in a piping treble, the voice of a little boy.
Two minutes later I was being bodily carried down the back stairs, the monstrous man carrying me as easily as he would have carried a chicken, and with about as much consideration for my comfort when she shucked me over his shoulder. My teeth rattled in my head as he lurched down the steep stairs until we reached the ground floor. There he turned down a corridor I had not been down before, stopping later to throw open a heavy door that I heard creak on its hinges. Again we descended, now entering the house’s cellars. More winding corridors and passage followed until at last he stopped, opened another door, stepped through it and dropped me to the ground. For once I was thankful for the density of my clothing for, although the air was driven from my lungs by my landing on the stone floor at the giant’s feet, I suffered nothing more from his handling that a minor bruise of two.
With the man’s mass blocking the door and the only light coming from a lamp or candle flickering in the passage behind him, I could not make out anything of the room into which I had been cast. A moment later, all chance of seeing where I was disappeared as he stepped back and slammed the door shut, leaving me in total darkness; darkness such intensity and totality that it terrified me as I lay helpless on the floor.
With my gloved hands still strapped to the broad belt around my waist, and tangled in petticoats, skirts and cape, I tried to sit up, even to stand. But my clothing was tangled about my legs and try as I might I found it impossible to get up. In the end I knelt on the unseen floor, feeling the room’s chill against my burning cheeks. I moaned into my makeshift gag and attempted to hold back the tears that dribbled down my face.
Before my jumbled mind could make head or tail of my grim predicament, I heard footfalls, then the sound of bolts being dragged back. Finally, with a squeal of rusty hinges, the door swung open. The sudden light blinded me after the room total darkness, and I looked away.
“No longer the elegant governess, I see!” Miss Harding’s voice cut through the chill air. “Get up, girl. What do you think you’re doing on the floor?”
Gagged, I could not explain how my skirts were wound round my legs and, with my hands useless, I was incapable for getting up.
“I don’t think she can get up, Miss,” The nursery maid’s voice sounded apprehensive in the presence of the formidable Miss Harding.
“Perhaps you’re right. Well, help her up and get her changed.”
It took ten minutes for the two women to strip me to the naked flesh, to seat me on a bucket in the corner of the awful chamber, and then to dress me in coarse clothing that scratched my flesh whenever I moved. Perhaps I should have resisted, but there was no fight left in me. The women handled me like a side of meat, grunting orders but otherwise ignoring the fact I was a living breathing women like themselves. They worked by the light of two paraffin lamps they had brought with them, so that I was at least able to see my prison. And what I saw filled me with horror and dread.
The stone floored room was probably some twelve foot square. In one corner stood the bucket which I had already been forced to use to my profound embarrassment. Near it, along the side wall to the left of the door, was a low platform, apparently made of coarse wood to which were bolted various irons rings, some with chains attached, some standing alone. The final item of furniture – if you could call it that – was a strange wooden box with a hole in its lid. Standing perhaps three and a half food high, it was probably just over two foot wide and eighteen inches deep, front to back. It seemed to be made of oak and it was reinforced at the corners and the whole of its front could be swung open, half the lids being attached to this moving part.
As soon as I had seen the wooden box, my heart had raced, my stomached churning with fear, for I knew what that device was. It was true that I had never seen one before. But I had heard such fiendish devices described and had been told how they were used long ago in more cruel times. Also I had heard such a device mentioned by the two women who were now dressing me in my scratchy clothing. I was on no doubt that the wooden object across that grim chamber from the sleeping platform was an example of the infamous and much feared ‘Orphan Box’.
“I see you find the box interesting,” Miss Harding said with a cold laugh, as I stood in the centre of the room, the nursery maid on her knees as she shackled my ankles together. “I don’t know where the Master or Mistress found them, but we have three here. One each for the girls if they misbehave, and now this one for you, my dear Miss Poyser. But then, as an orphan, it seems only right you should see what life is like kept locked inside one.”
She walked across the stone floor and opened the front of the box, the flickering light from the lamps showing the narrow ‘seat’ inside, and the straps attached to its inner walls. I moaned into my gag, fear making my legs go weak as the woman poked around inside the heavy walled box.
“I don’t know what all the fuss is about, really.” She said, turning to look as me as the nursery maid clambered to her feet, having locked my ankles in iron shackles. “It strikes me as an ideal way of keeping young women like you under control. Locked in your box and nicely kept still by its straps, you can’t get into trouble at all. Silence you as well, and we won’t have to worry about you at all. Just leave you down here during the day, Breakfast and supper between box and bed; a nice quiet life for you and for us too. In fact a perfect life for you while you make up your mind whether you are going to be sensible and join us, or whether you want to spend a VERY long time long up down here.”
I desperately tried to beg for mercy. But the knotted gag that filled my mouth only allowed some indecipherable noises to emerge. Miss Harding smiled again, a glacial look in her eyes that betrayed the upwards curl of her thin lips.
“No need to tell us your decision yet, Miss Poyser. You see, we don’t want you deciding on something and then changing your mind later. And to make sure you REALLY have made up your mind when we do ask you, my brother has thought it best that you stay down here for a while, out of the way, and out of mind for most of the time. So there’s no need to hurry with your decision, my dear. Take your time, because we intend giving you plenty.”
Abruptly the smile disappeared and the strode over to me, her talon-like hands grabbing my shoulders and wheeling me round. With ankles shackled together I almost fell but the two women manhandled me across the room, forcing me backwards into the tight interior of the box, pushing me down until I was perched on its narrow seat. Heavy leather straps were passed wound my torso, across my lap and around my legs until I was secured immobile in place. Even my hands were contained in tight leather bags attached to the box’s rear wall. Fresh tears ran down my face as the straps were jerked cruelly tight about me and then padlocked so there was no chance of their slackening.
The back of my neck rested in a sem-circular opening carved into the fixed rear half of the box’s top, a thin strap holding my neck in place. I was helpless already but the box’s true restraint was still to be put in place. This was done by Miss Harding who slowly swung back the front section, the top sliding backwards do that my throat was gripped by another semi-circular opening in the top. With a sickening clunk the front part shut, sealing me inside withe small wooden prison, only my head projecting from its enclosure.
Unseen by me – the top projected out under my chin, preventing me from looking down – heavy reinforcing bars were swung about the whole box to be padlocked closed. Now I was locked inside my oaken prison, two inches thick timber ensuring that I could never escape from its confines without assistance. I moaned into my gag, knowing that I was more helpless than I had ever been before.
“You look rather charming in there, Miss Poyser,” Miss Harding said with an icy chuckle. “I doubt if governesses have ever spent any time in one of those things. Well, you and that Orphan Box are going to get to know each other rather well. It’s going to be your daytime home for a good while. I’m told they are not too comfortable, but who worries about your comfort, my dear. I certainly don’t; all I am interested in is keeping you out of harm’s way.”
She held up a bunch of heavy keys for me to see through tear-streaked eyes.
“Six locks to your box, my girl. And just so no-one gets carried away with compassion and lets you out of there, each day they’ll be locked in Miss Harding’s own safe. He says he wants them locked in there by seven each morning and he has agreed to release them to whoever is looking after you at nine each night. Fourteen hours a day locked in your Orphan Box, that’s what you have tolook forward to in future.” She smiled again and then abruptly turned to face the nursery maid.
“I think you said that Miss Poyser found wearing that Tranquillity Hood an extremely distressing experience last night. Well, you run upstairs and bring it down here. It’s occurred to me that we can train her into accepting that hood while she is here. In fact, for every second she is locked in that box, she is to be hooded too. Now that really will help her make up her mind.!”
WALKING IN SILENCE Chapter Eleven
I sat on the Orphan Box’s tiny internal perch, jibbering inwardly with fear as the nursery maid trotted from the subterranean chamber, leaving me alone with a clearly pleased Miss Harding.
“Nice and snug in there?” She enquired, smiling thinly down at me. “Orphan boxes are such delightfully secure devices, I always think. Put a young woman in one, strap her nice and tightly to the seat, and then lock the box closed about her and you KNOW she is going to have to behave. NO alternative; as you are going to find out for yourself, Miss Poyser. Well, you can draw some consolation that you’re not the only young woman kept in one of those boxes here. Your charges will be in theirs too. Three of you, all kept well behaved in the same way. Rather charming, isn’t it?”
The gaunt woman laughed at her own cruel jest before turning towards the door, obviously growing impatient for the nursery maid’s return. After all, tormenting me was not something that would keep her amused for too long. But it was plain it was a better alternative than just waiting for the maid to come back. For she turned to face me again.
As she did so, in the flickering lamplight I saw her eyes focus on something out of my line of vision. Swiftly she stepped forward and moved round behind the box in which I was such a helpless prisoner. With my throat clamped tightly both by the strapping inside the box and by the stocks-like aperture in the top of the box, I could not turn my head to see what she was doing. But I did not have to wait long. For she reappeared to stand before me, holding in one hand what I recognised as a spanner. In the other was far bulkier object: a clearly heavy box, yet far smaller than the one in which I sat. Perhaps a foot high and nine inches each side, it appeared to be made of the same thick oak as that which incarcerated me.
“I nearly forgot this,” the woman chuckled. “Of course our sweet girls upstairs don’t have such attachments on their boxes. It was only this one that was made with a head container. ”
She held the wooden object up for me to see. It appeared simple enough, an oaken box with a steel flange around the base which itself was wide open. Projecting down from each corner of the flange was short threaded bolt.
“Can’t our so intelligent governess see how it works?” Miss Harding teased me, clearly reading puzzlement in my eyes as I looked at the heavy object in her hands. “Well, look down girl. See the holes in the top of your box a few inches either side of your chin. Well, they are matched by ones behind your head. You see, all I do is lower this box down over your head and face and then screw the bolts home into those holes. And hey presto!, your head box is sealed down to the main part of the Orphan Box and you are completely shut away from sight. Like to see how it works?”
I howled into my gag as the woman raised the device in her hands and slowly lowered it down over my head. One moment I could see past Miss Harding and view part of the grim cell that was my outer prison. The next she had lowered the box down so my head was within its walls, its lower edge and the steel flange resting on top of the Orphan Box. I could see a tiny strip of light at the join but then I heard what I presumed was a bolt being screwed down, and the line of light grew thinner and died, leaving me in total darkness.
For a few moments after this I heard the woman tightening the other screws down. And then there was silence almost as total as the darkness about me. Only the harsh sound of my breath entering and exiting my dilated nostrils broke that awful silence.
As a child unable to afford night-lights or such luxuries, I had grown used to sleeping in darkness, but the Stygian blackness into which I was plunged surpassed anything I had experienced before. I felt fear creeping up on me; fear of darkness and fear of being shut away inside the two close fitting boxes whose dense wood walls sealed me into my own personal prison. I howled almost noiselessly into my gag, cold terror filling my heart. To be locked in an Orphan Box was a terrible fate but to have my head locked inside its extended walls made it all far more frightening.
Momentarily I struggled against my bonds. But the leather straps that held me in place were steely about my body, holding me immobile on the narrow seat. Even my head was held motionless by the deep wooden ‘collar’ about my throat, its relentless pressure threatening to garrotte me if I even tried to move my head at all. But mere confinement within the box and the cruel manner in which I was strapped in place were far from being all the miseries that afflicted me. For the seat on which I sat seemed to be made of one or maybe two narrow bars passing from one side of the box to the other. When I said I was ‘perched’ on that seat, I was not exaggerating; for only part of my posterior was supported and it was that narrow band of flesh that had to bear all my weight. Having spent countless hour on a similar ‘punishment seats’ when I wa younger, I was only too bitterly aware that remained on one for long was going to be a bitterly uncomfortable, and ultimately painful, experience.
But, locked inside the darkness of my tiny prison, I was beginning to learn other unpleasant facts about the Orphan Box. The first which I had barely noticed when I was strapped inside it, was the fact that, running up from the seat to the top inside the box was a square bar that now jabbed into my spine. Doubtless the excuse for this projection was to keep the inmates back upright and straight but, as minutes slowly passed, I was discovering that it was more an instrument of additional torment rather than a mere posture aid. The upper straps dragged my shoulders back so I was pressed cruelly back against the square bar behind me. Just sitting quietly inside that box was obviously not designed to be a restful way of spending one’s time.
Another nasty little item was the manner in which my feet were fastened. The seat was of such a height that they did not reach the base of the box but, like my legs, were strapped back against a bar running down from seat front to floor. For my skirted-padded legs this was not too bad. But my feet seems to be strapped to some sort of plate that was angled steeply downwards so my toes almost pointed to the floor. Again this was not too bad initially but, as time passed, the manner in which my feet were immobilised began to cause me ever increasing discomfort, thanks to the tightly laced ankle boots that encased my feet and the acute angle at which they were held.
Finally, it did not take me long to recognise that the cadence of my breathing was speeding up, its rhythm growing ever faster as fear and lack of air inside the head box began to make my heart pound and my lungs to burn. Panic began to set in, as the terrible spectre of being slowly suffocated within the head box caught hold of my imagination. I howled into my gag, hoping and praying that Miss Harding might still be near and that she would realise what was happening. But the sound that escaped past the makeshift gag that filled my mouth was pathetically muffled, and I doubted if she could hear my entreaties for help. If she could have done, she certainly did not act upon them, as the head box remain bolted down in place and the air inside its walls seemed to grow ever more foul.
I have no idea how long I remained like that, fighting off ever increasing discomfort and pain, and terrified that I was being slowly suffocated. But I gradually came to realise that there must be some device allowing air into and out of the head box. Whatever it was, it must be cruelly restricted, but my terror of suffocation gradually subsided, although the air in the box remained foul and hot. Now my fear seems focussed on how long I was to be kept in this awful box and how long I would be kept locked away in the cell-like room outside it. Whatever was going to happen, it was plain that Mr and Miss Harding were determined to break me by whatever means they had available. How long I could remain sane and clear headed when faced with such torments, I did not know. But, sitting inside that terrible Orphan Box, I resolved not to weaken and to fight against every fresh trial they produced in order the break my spirit. I would NOT let them win.
Four days later, I was not in so determined a mood as the nursery maid shovelled some sort of foul-tasting gruel into my mouth, warning me not to spit it out.
“You’ve got to eat it all, Miss,” she said in almost apologetic tones. “If you don’t, I have to report you.”
She paused, forcing me to eat another spoonful of the bitter concoction. I gagged on the horrible mush and the young woman tut-tutted to herself.
“Eat it, Miss. Or she’ll whip you as sure as day is day. And she’ll enjoy that; she will. Great one for whipping the other servants is our Miss Harding.”
I swallowed the beastly gruel and risked asking a question.
“Have you been whipped?” I asked, my voice cracked and barely audible through lack of use.
“Me? Whipped?” The nursery maid laughed at my question. “Course I have. More times than you could count to, Miss.”
“Then why do you stay here? You can surely get another job, somewhere kinder, where you’ll be decently treated.”
I saw terror in the young woman’s eyes. She glanced behind her, as though afraid that Miss Harding was in the doorway, listening to our doubtless forbidden conversation. Relief was apparent in her features as she turned again to face me as I sat immobile, only my head projecting from the tight confines of the Orphan Box in which I was locked.
“I can’t leave, Miss. I’m indentured. Anyway, they’d never let me go.”
“Not let you go? How could they stop you?” I asked.
“Last maid who ran off they told the peelers about her. Had her arrested for theft. Said she’s stolen some silver. She got three years hard labour, Miss. That’s why I can’t run.”
The nursery maid, prim in her black uniform, picked up the gruel bowl and loaded the spoon again with its grey mixture.
“Better to stay and get whipped than to try to leave,” she went on as I struggled to swallow the food she scooped into my mouth. “At least we get fed and even get some money for ourselves. Though Mr Harding keeps it until we’ve done our time.”
“All the servants are indentured?” I asked as soon as I had swallow the gruel.
“Most, Miss. The rest are either friendly with the Hardings or owe them. No one ever leaves here unless Mr Harding wants to see them gone.”
“How long have you been here?” I ventured to ask, after I had forced down another horrible spoonful of gruel.
“Since I was ten, Miss. Funny you should be in an Orphan Box. Because that’s where I could have been if I didn’t come here. The Hardings got me from the local orphanage. There at the orphanage they used these boxes of the eldest girls. Dead terrified of them, those girls were.”
The young woman looked in the bowl, spooned up the rest of the horrible gruel and, after she had given it to me, placed the bowl and spoon on the floor. She walked across to the bed and picked up the heavy tranquillity hood that lay on it.
“Time for this, Miss. And to locked down the head box as well.”
“Oh no, please. Please. A little longer, I’ll…………………………”
The nursery maid, for all that she might feel sorry for me, even sympathise with my plight, knew her duty. And I, helpless within the box, could do nothing to prevent her from gagging and hooding me. Blind within the hood’s dense walls, I did not see her lift the head box, nor did I witness her replacing it and bolting down the screws that held it in place.
For me, another endless taste of purgatory was about to start, and there was nothing I could do to prevent its onset.
“We have decided that you should have a break from your close confinement.”
I blinked in the sudden light, my eyes painful after so long of being engulfed in the darkness of my tranquillity hood and being locked inside the head box.
Shocked by the unexpected visit and still with my mind confused, and my body pain-filled from so long locked in the Orphan Box, I did not at first comprehend what the woman was saying. Then her words sunk in and, for the first time in days, I felt something akin to joy, as I realised I might soon be released from confinement.
I had lost count how many days it had been since I had first been locked in the Orphan box. For, since that day, my routine had been unwavering. Sixteen endless hours within its confines, tranquillity hooded and strapped into often agonising immobility. Then a brief flurry of activity as one of the servants assisted Miss Harding in removing me from the box, cleaning me up, and making sure I used the pot, before giving me something to drink. Then I was fastened down on the sleeping platform for the ‘night’. There I stayed for another seven and a half hours before I was unchained and unstrapped so as to be allowed to use the primitive toilet facilities. The I had to wash myself as best I could in cold water, and to be given a frugal breakfast before being dragged across the cell to the Orphan Box, there to be locked away for the day. During the slow passing hours that followed I was fed sometime in what must have been the late afternoon, although there were days when, for no apparent reason, my main meal of the day was not given to me. There was never any explanation for this, and I had learnt only too soon not to ask Miss Harding why such things happened to me. For I knew that I would barely be able to withstand the pain were she to flog me and then lock me in the box, perched on its grossly uncomfortable seat.
Now, I realised, she can come to see me at an unusual hour and she was talking about a break in my confinement. My poor addled brain was still trying to work out this conundrum when she spoke again.
“We don’t want you wasting away through lack of exercise, do we, Miss Poyser? We want to keep you healthy and happy, for when you go back to teaching your old pupils. Because you are going to do that, aren’t you, my dear?”
With my throat clamped in the wooden ‘collar’ formed by the two halves of the box’s upper surface, I could not nod my assent nor shake my head to indicate refusal. But I knew I might make enough of a movement to let my tormentor know if I had decided to join in with her devious actions.
“Not made up your mind yet?” The woman smiled thinly down at me.
I shook my head slightly, but enough for her to see my indication of refusal.
“Stubborn child.! Never mind, we are in no hurry.”
She turned away and walked across the room to where her companion, the hatchet faced maid, was standing. She took something from the younger woman and, as soon as she turned to face me again, I recognised it as the heavy winter cloak which I had last worn during that terrible exercise period with the sisters.
My heart leapt with joy. They were going to take me outdoors for a walk – out of the box, out of this dungeon and out of the house. I almost cried out with pleasure, but gagged, and discrete, I remained silent as Miss Harding, the cloaks massive folds gathered in her arms, stood back and indicated that the maid should extract me from the orphan Box. As usual it was a protracted and, for me, agonising procedure as cramped limbs were straightened and my part folded body was straightened up, my trembling legs barely holding me upright.
But this time the pain was worthwhile, for I was about to breath God’s fresh air again after so long of breathing and rebreathing the fetid atmosphere trapped under my hood and within the confines of the head box.
I even did my best to straighten up and to stand upright, rather than letting the maid drag me to and fro. My heart was singing as I felt certain that, if I could see the world beyond the cellars just once every few days, I could outlast my tormentors.
Miss Harding came across towards me and shook out the voluminous folds of heavyweight material. With a broad sweep of her hands she swung it round me and allowed its folds to settle on my shoulders, its bulk billowing slowly down to cover me from chin to floor. I staggered under its sudden weight, weakened legs fighting to keep me upright. My head swam from the effort but I managed to remain on my feet.
Miss Harding came closer and reached forward to fasten the massive garment about my throat. As she did so, she smiled again.
“Oh Miss Poyser, I forgot to mention, you’ll be back to wearing your tranquillity hood for your exercise period. You see, you won’t be going far. In fact, just outside the door to this cell. There is a nice long corridor out there, and we thought you could walk up and down that for a while. No need for sight, as you will soon get to know how many paces it is from end to end!”
She laughed icily and stood back, gesturing to the maid.
“Finishing dressing her and then lead her out into the corridor. We’ll teach her how long it is before we make her walk blind. Can’t be cruel to our little governess, can we?”
End of story